LONDON — The colorful and controversial speaker of the British House of Commons announced a surprise resignation Monday, hours before Parliament was expected to again reject Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s call for early elections.
John Bercow — known for his enthusiastic shouting of “order, order” and his stalwart defense of Parliamentary power — set the tone on a day of rebellion with the declaration that he would step down on Oct. 31, if the push for an October election indeed fails.
The date is significant because Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said Britain will leave the European Union by then, “do or die.”
“We degrade this Parliament at our peril,” Bercow told lawmakers in an emotional address, as his wife looked on from the gallery.
Bercow has been an outspoken advocate for allowing Parliament to serve as a check on the prime minister’s power at a time when critics say Johnson has been all too willing to flout important conventions of the British political system. The speaker’s stance was significant last week, with Bercow giving lawmakers the chance to block Johnson’s attempts to take Britain out of the E.U. without a deal.
Most lawmakers gave Bercow a standing ovation on Monday — a rare display on the House floor — though many hard line Brexiteers, who believe Bercow is biased toward the pro-E.U. camp, stayed seated.
The surprise announcement came ahead of an expected vote on an early election; another defeat would even further constrain the prime minister’s already limited options.
Johnson was seeking to turn the page on a disastrous week and unblock the path to a British exit from the E.U. on Halloween. He visited Dublin Monday morning for talks with Irish leader Leo Varadkar aimed at disentangling one of the thorniest aspects of Brexit negotiations: what to do about Northern Ireland. But Johnson got little help from his Irish counterpart.
The chilly, overcast skies in Dublin matched the apparent mood between the leaders. While Varadkar told reporters he was hoping for “a good start” to the talks, he was also clear that Johnson’s government had yet to offer a serious proposal for breaking through the deadlock.
And he savaged a favorite Johnson talking point, insisting that a British exit without a deal would only lead to more rounds of interminable negotiation — not to an end to Britain’s Brexit agony.
“There is no such thing as a clean break,” Varadkar said as Johnson grimaced.
The British leader struck a notably more conciliatory tone than he had last week, insisting again that the Britain “will come out on October 31” but also citing a clear preference for a deal to manage the withdrawal.
To leave without one, he said, “would be a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible.” In the past, Johnson has been dismissive about the potential negative consequences of a no-deal exit.
The talks Monday came hours before a vote in Parliament that is expected to be the last before the House of Commons goes into recess for over a month. As he did repeatedly last week, Johnson is forecast to lose, with opponents in the House of Commons teaming up to block the election that the prime minister craves.
Monday’s events came as Downing Street — and Britain as a whole — reeled from a manic political week in which the prime minister lost his majority in Parliament, lost his attempt to ram through a no-deal departure and even lost the support of his own brother, a minister who quit because of “unresolvable tension” between family loyalty and the national interest.
Another minister, Amber Rudd, followed him out the door over the weekend, saying she was protesting the purge of 21 Tory members of Parliament who had defied the prime minister.
Rumors of additional departures swirled on Monday. But for the moment, at least, no additional resignations appeared imminent.
Downing Street confirmed Monday that Parliament would be suspended as of Monday night and would not come into session until mid-October, just before the end-of-month deadline for Britain to leave the E.U.
The suspension had originally appeared aimed at allowing Johnson a free hand to take Britain out by Halloween, with or without a deal.
But that plan backfired spectacularly, as did his backup plan to call for a new election.
With his options limited, Johnson appears focused on talking up the possibility of a breakthrough in long-stalled talks with the E.U.
Rudd, in her resignation, said she had seen little evidence that Johnson’s government was serious about trying to strike a new deal, and was instead focused on planning for a no-deal crash-out.
But the prime minister insisted in Dublin Monday that there was still plenty of time to come to terms with his European counterparts before E.U. leaders meet for a summit Oct. 17-18.
“There is a way forward,” he said. “If we really focus, I think we can make a huge amount of progress.”
He declined, however, to specify new proposals. And Varadkar maintained that he had not seen any.
After their joint news conference, the pair met for a half-hour over breakfast and then for another half-hour with their delegations. A joint statement following the meeting said that “common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain.”
The question of how to handle the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain a member of the E.U., has bedeviled Britain’s Brexit plans from the start.
Both the British and Irish governments say they don’t want a hard border, complete with checkpoints and barriers, dividing the island. But the Irish, and the E.U., have insisted on a “backstop” that would in effect keep Britain in the E.U.’s customs union until a solution can be found that allows for two different trading systems to exist side-by-side.
Johnson has rejected such an arrangement, arguing it will keep Britain from striking deals with other countries, such as the United States, and reaping the benefits of life outside the E.U.
As Johnson and Varadkar spoke, dozens of people from the border region protested outside Leinster House, the seat of Ireland’s parliament. They said they want Johnson to visit the area to see for himself the impact that a disorganized British exit could have on an area that thrives on cross-border trade.
“No deal would be disastrous for the border community,” said Bernard Boyle, a 67-year-old accountant. “I want him to come and speak to the people in the border areas. Don’t be flying in and out of Dublin. Livelihoods are under threat.”
Back in London, Bercow’s resignation announcement was greeted with flowery tributes from both sides of the Commons gallery.
The speaker has become something of a celebrity for his starring role in the Brexit drama, famed for his colorful ties and soaring oratory.
His supporters say he was one of the most reforming speakers in modern times, giving backbench lawmakers a bigger voice.
But some Tories appeared happy know he will soon be gone.
Although Bercow was elected as a Conservative, hard line Brexiteers had deemed him to be too willing to overstep the customarily nonpartisan role of the speaker by selecting amendments to be voted on that favored the pro-E.U. side.
Conservatives had, in recent days, threatened to challenge him in the next election — a breach of protocol, which dictates the speaker’s seat is not contested.
Bercow, who has always denied being biased in Brexit decisions, is probably best known outside of the Westminster bubble as the man from Prime Minister’s Questions who shouts “Order! Order” at unruly lawmakers in the House of Commons. His put-downs — telling lawmakers to “calm yourself” or “take up yoga” — have gone viral.
His farewell speech exhibited some of his typical flair.
“Throughout my time as speaker I have sought to increase the relative authority of this legislature for which I will make absolutely no apology to anyone anywhere at anytime,” he said, his voice catching at times. “To deploy a perhaps dangerous phrase I have also sought to be the backbenchers’ backstop.”