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Johnson To Call For Snap Election After Conservatives Suffer Key Parliamentary Defeat

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen hosting health service workers Tuesday at No. 10 Downing St. in London. The same day in the House of Commons, Johnson was dealt a political blow when the defection of a fellow Conservative left him without a working majority in Parliament.
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen hosting health service workers Tuesday at No. 10 Downing St. in London. The same day in the House of Commons, Johnson was dealt a political blow when the defection of a fellow Conservative left him without a working majority in Parliament.

Updated at 6 p.m. ET

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is ready to call a snap election after lawmakers cleared the way for a vote on Wednesday to prevent the U.K. from leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement at the end of October.

The announcement was the culmination of a dramatic day that saw a defection rob Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party of their single-seat majority in Parliament.

"I don't want an election, but if MPs vote tomorrow to stop negotiations and to compel another pointless delay to Brexit potentially for years then that will be the only way to resolve this," Johnson said after the 328 to 301 vote to seize control of parliamentary time on Wednesday.

A general election, which Johnson's aides say he wants for Oct. 14, would be the third in just four years for Britons.

On Tuesday, less than two months from the date he set for the U.K.'s divorce from the European Union — with or without a deal on the terms of the breakup — Johnson suffered another significant blow to his fraying support in Parliament: Phillip Lee, a fellow Tory, defected from Johnson's Conservative Party in a dramatic scene in the House of Commons.

As Johnson addressed the chamber, Lee silently crossed the room and took a seat with the opposition Liberal Democrats under a heavy rain of jeers and cheers from his fellow members of Parliament. The seemingly outsize reaction was warranted: The loss of Lee's vote erases the tenuous working majority enjoyed by the prime minister's coalition, just as a possible vote looms on a bill that would bar Johnson from leaving the European bloc without a deal.

"Sadly, the Brexit process has helped to transform this once great Party in to something more akin to a narrow faction, where an individual's 'conservativism' is measured by how recklessly one wishes to leave the European Union," Lee said in a statement released on Twitter. "Perhaps most disappointingly, it has increasingly become infected with the twin diseases of populism and English nationalism."

Lee's defection comes on perhaps the most consequential day so far for Johnson's young premiership. Parliament returned to session for the first time since the prime minister moved to suspend the lawmaking body, beginning around Sept. 9 and leaving it in recess until Oct. 14 — or for more than half the weeks remaining before Johnson's deadline.

That decision elicited fierce resistance, not just from opposition lawmakers but from members within his own party, as well. Commons Speaker John Bercow, for one, said last week that the suspension of Parliament "represents a constitutional outrage," and more than a dozen of Johnson's own Tories have threatened to back the bill blocking a no-deal Brexit.

Meanwhile, protests have erupted outside the Houses of Parliament, as well.

Johnson, for his part, has sought to quell the mutiny within the Conservative Party with threats of deselection and expulsion.

"To these rebels in his own party, he said, effectively, 'I'm going to kick you out if you defy me.' And this would effectively end their careers," NPR's Frank Langfitt explained on Morning Edition Tuesday before the day's tumult in the House of Commons. "Some people find this quite ruthless, but the rebels' view is that 'we're going to choose what we see as the future of the country and the best interests of the country over party.' "

Johnson could also seek a snap general election next month if he does not get his way — which would be the U.K.'s third general vote in three years. On NPR's Here and Now, Langfitt explained that Johnson may choose to run a campaign critical of Parliament and essentially say that lawmakers are "trying to rob the people of the Brexit vote" — and that he just needs an electoral majority to push it through.

"One thing is critical: If we are to succeed in these negotiations [with EU officials], we need to get behind the prime minister," Conservative MP Michael Gove told lawmakers Tuesday in the House of Commons.

"And if it is the case that the motion before the House is passed tonight and the legislation which it gives effect to is passed tomorrow," he continued, "then we will allow the European Union to dictate the length of any extension and to put any conditions they wish to on that extension. That would totally undermine the government's capacity to negotiate in the national interest."

Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party to whom Lee defected, didn't buy arguments such as Gove's

"The prime minister has lost his majority with the honorable member from Bracknell joining the Liberal Democrats," she said on the chamber floor, adding: "When will the prime minister stop playing with people's lives and stop Brexit?"

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Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.