LONDON – Despite a string of stinging defeats in Parliament, and the painful, public resignation of his own brother, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday continued his passionate push for an early general election he hopes would help him deliver Brexit by Oct. 31.
Johnson cast his quest to break Britain out of the European Union in defiant and populist terms, saying he would "rather be dead in a ditch" than seek any further delays to Brexit.
He said he didn't want to see "the "powers of the British people handed over to Brussels, so we can be kept incarcerated in the E.U." That echoed the populist — and successful — appeal to British voters to "take back control" of Britain that led to the passage of Brexit in a 2016 national referendum.
Still, the tumult of the past week appeared to be taking a toll on Johnson, who was unusually halting and uncertain as he spoke before a group of police cadets in Yorkshire. Normally a gifted and confident orator, Johnson squinted awkwardly into the bright sunshine. He stumbled as he tried to recite the British equivalent of the Miranda Rights to the cadets, who know the lines well.
That may have been especially understandable on a day he suffered the personal blow of having his younger brother Jo Johnson resign as a member of Parliament and government minister.
"In recent weeks I've been torn between family loyalty and the national interest — it's an unresolvable tension & time for others to take on my roles as MP & Minister," Jo Johnson tweeted, using the hashtag overandout.
Jo Johnson voted against Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and his ideological disagreements with his brother are well known. But his resignation was unexpected and underscored the depth of divisions over Brexit and of the prime minister's political problems.
"Jo doesn't agree with me about the European Union. It's an issue that divides families and divides everybody," Boris Johnson said in Yorkshire, calling his brother a "fantastic guy" and noting he supported the government's efforts to increase spending on education, hospitals and public safety.
Asked by a reporter why people should trust him to act in the national interest when his brother doesn't, the prime minister said: "People disagree about the E.U., but the way to unite the country, I'm afraid, is to get this thing done. That is the reality."
Asked if he would be the next Johnson to resign, the prime minister didn't answer directly but said he was determined to "deliver on the mandate of the people" from the 2016 Brexit referendum.
The embattled Johnson got a supportive assist on Thursday from visiting Vice President Mike Pence, who met with him at 10 Downing Street and suggested a post-Brexit trade deal could "increase trade between our countries by three or four times."
The United States and Britain can't actually strike a trade deal until after Brexit. And whether Johnson would be around to negotiate it is unclear.
Parliament has rebelled against his position that the U.K. should be willing to leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal deal to manage the transition. The House of Commons passed legislation on Wednesday designed to avert a chaotic no-deal Brexit next month. That legislation seeks a three-month delay in Brexit if no terms can be reached before the Oct. 31 deadline.
The House of Lords, after debating well into the night Wednesday, cleared the way for the bill to get final approval by Friday.
Now the big battle seems to be when — rather than if — to hold a general election for the 650 seats in the House of Commons.