By William James, Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) – EU leaders should delay Brexit after Prime Minister Boris Johnson paused legislation on his deal following a parliamentary defeat, EU Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday, as Britain spins towards a possible election to break the impasse.
As the clock ticks down to the deadline for Britain’s departure on Oct. 31, Brexit is hanging in the balance as divided lawmakers debate when, how and even whether it should happen more than three years since the 2016 referendum.
In another day of Brexit drama in the 800-year-old Westminster seat of power, lawmakers handed Johnson the first major parliamentary victory of his premiership by signaling their support for his deal in an early legislative hurdle.
But that was overshadowed just minutes later when lawmakers defeated him on his timetable to rush the legislation through the House of Commons in just three days, prompting the government to say it would pause the legislative process.
Tusk recommended late on Tuesday evening that the leaders of the remaining 27 member states back a delay.
“In order to avoid a no-deal Brexit, I will recommend the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension,” he said on Twitter.
It is now for the rest of the bloc to decide whether the Oct. 31 deadline should be pushed back to the end of January as requested by Johnson in a letter he was forced to send on Saturday by British lawmakers.
France is ready to grant an additional few days in order to facilitate parliament’s vote but rules out any extension beyond that, a diplomatic source said.
Johnson had hoped to make the delay request unnecessary by passing the Brexit law fast enough to leave on time. A source in his Downing Street office said there now needed be a fresh election.
“If parliament’s delay is agreed by Brussels, then the only way the country can move on is with an election,” the source said.
On Tuesday, lawmakers did vote by 329 to 299 in favor of the second reading of the legislation for the Brexit deal – still no guarantee of success since the bill could be amended by lawmakers who want changes.
They then opposed by 322 to 308 votes Johnson’s extremely tight timetable.
“I must express my disappointment that the House has yet again voted for delay,” Johnson told parliament.
“I will speak to EU member states about their intentions, until they have reached a decision we will pause this legislation,” Johnson said after the parliamentary votes. “Let me be clear, our policy remains that we should not delay.”
The pound <GBP=> fell 0.6% to $1.2881, off the 5-1/2 month highs hit earlier in the session on optimism about the deal.
HOW LONG A DELAY?
The length of any extension could decide the course of Brexit: a long delay would allow time for an election and for opponents of the divorce to push for another referendum. A short delay might increase pressure on parliament to approve a deal.
Senior EU officials said the 27 countries that would remain in the EU after Britain leaves would “certainly not” react immediately. “We stay calm,” one senior diplomat said.
Irish PM Leo Varadkar welcomed the vote in favor of Johnson’s legislation.
“We will now await further developments from London and Brussels about next steps including timetable for the legislation and the need for an extension,” Varadkar said.
Ahead of the vote, Johnson had warned parliament that if it forced a delay until January then he would abandon his attempt to ratify the deal and push for an election, under the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”.
In his statement after the votes, Johnson did not mention an election. He would need the support of parliament to call one.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called on Johnson to work with other parties to ensure a reasonable timetable to discuss the deal. Some in the Labour Party expect a short extension, with Brexit being resolved and then an election within months.
Behind the daily Brexit combat in parliament, in the courts and at late-night EU summits, a much bigger game is being played over whether Brexit will happen at all.
Johnson faces legislative booby traps at every juncture, but the opponents of Brexit are also deeply divided – one of the reasons their campaign to “Remain” failed in the 2016 vote.
(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, William James, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton, Alistair Smout, Stephen Addison in London and John Chalmers in Brussels; writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Costas Pitas; Editing by Peter Graff and Sonya Hepinstall)
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