Brexit’s Advance Opens a New Trade Era

The decisive Conservative victory in Britain leaves no doubt that in today’s global equation, national interests are supreme and globalization is suspect.

The notion that global economic integration amounts to human progress had a good run, dominating the thinking of the powers that be for more than seven decades. But a new era is underway in which national interests take primacy over collective concerns, with trading arrangements negotiated among individual countries.

Britain’s voters made that clear on Thursday in handing an emphatic majority to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party, all but ensuring that the world’s fifth-largest economy — and a charter member of the international trading system — will proceed with its abandonment of the European Union.

preliminary deal hailed on Friday by the two largest economies, the United States and China, raised the prospect of easing their high-stakes trade animosities. But the nature of their engagement — country to country, not mediated by the World Trade Organization or some other international authority — underscored the principles of the new age.

Britain now faces another complex phase in its tangled European divorce proceedings — negotiations over the terms of its future economic relationship with the Continent. But in one form or another, “getting Brexit done,” the mantra that Mr. Johnson promised and can now deliver, marks a profound change in the world trading system.

In the aftermath of World War II, the victorious Allies built an international order on the understanding that when countries swap goods they become less inclined to trade artillery volleys.

Britain’s departure from the European Union is the clearest manifestation that this idea no longer holds decisive sway. It is not the only one.

The traditional arbiter of international trade disputes, the World Trade Organization, is listing toward irrelevance as countries bypass its channels to impose tariffs. Its appellate body, which adjudicates disputes, has been rendered inoperative by the Trump administration’s blocking of new judges. The panel needs at least three judges to render verdicts, but now has only one.

“The sense that policy moves in one direction, toward more liberalization and more integration, has been replaced by recognition that policy can go backward as well as forward,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

The United States and China together account for more than a third of the global economy, making their wave of escalating tariffs a cause for alarm about diminishing fortunes in nearly every country exposed to international trade — from Germany to South Korea to Mexico.

President Trump has put stock in the unrivaled scale of the American economy in seeking favorable trading arrangements. In his calculus, the United States boasts the advantage in any bilateral trade negotiations and can tilt the rules toward American interests.

This was the logic that prompted Mr. Trump to renounce American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc spanning a dozen countries. It was a project pursued by his immediate predecessor, President Barack Obama, in part to press China to address longstanding complaints that it subsidized key industries, doled out credit to favored companies and manipulated the value of its currency to gain advantage in world markets.

In taking on China, the Obama administration employed the multilateralist mind-set that had guided American policy since the end of World War II. The Pacific trading bloc would set rules on investment, labor and environmental standards. Its members would profit through growing trade, and China would want in. To gain access, China would be forced to adopt the bloc’s rules.

But in Trumpian thinking, multilateralism is for suckers. Shortly after he was sworn in, declaring as his credo “America First,” Mr. Trump ditched the Pacific bloc and weaponized the American market: If China wanted access to the 327 million consumers in the richest country on earth, it would have to buy more American goods and play fair.

On Friday, Mr. Trump cited the preliminary agreement as evidence that his strategy was working. The United States would sharply reduce the tariffs it had affixed to Chinese goods, while China promised to buy more American farm products and respect intellectual property. Mr. Trump called it “an amazing deal for all.”

But economists said the announcement of new farm purchases reflected goods that China was already buying. Even as the scrapping of the next wave of tariffs weighed as positive for the global economy, few were proclaiming the advent of enduring peace. The United States and China have descended into such an adversarial state that they are likely to continue seeking alternatives to exchanging goods and investment. Companies that make goods in China will face pressure to explore other countries, posing disruption to the global supply chain.

China’s leaders have come to construe trade hostilities as part of an American bullying campaign engineered to suppress their national aspirations and deny the country its rightful place as a superpower. Nationalist sentiments and security concerns have become intertwined with trade policy, complicating the pursuit of a final deal.

Now Britain, in leaving the European bloc, embarks on a strategy aimed at securing bilateral trading arrangements with major economies, from the United States and China to Australia and India.

Trade deals are complex and difficult. They entail prying open new markets for exports in exchange for exposing domestic companies to new competitors. Powerful interest groups complain. Deals take years.

Arithmetic reveals that no combination of trade deals is likely to compensate Britain fully for what it stands to lose in walking away from the European single marketplace, a territory stretching from Greece to Ireland.

Britain sends nearly half of its exports to the European Union, a flow of goods imperiled by Brexit. Britain’s appeal as a headquarters for multinational companies will be undermined as it finds itself separated from the Continent by a revived border.

The fraying of international trading arrangements and the rise of nationalist imperatives have been driven by intensifying public anger in many countries over widening economic inequality, and the perception that trade has been bountiful for the executive class while leaving ordinary people behind.

In Britain, struggling communities used the June 2016 referendum that unleashed Brexit as a protest vote against the bankers in London who had engineered a catastrophic financial crisis, and who then forced regular people to absorb the costs through wrenching fiscal austerity.

In the United States, Mr. Trump’s political base has rallied to his trade war. In ItalyFrance and Germany, furious popular movements have fixed on trade as a threat to workers’ livelihoods, while embracing nationalist and nativist responses that promise to halt globalization.

“The era of freewheeling markets and liberalism is ending,” said Meredith Crowley, an international trade expert at the University of Cambridge in England. “People are dissatisfied with the complexity of policy and this feeling that those who have the levers of policy are somehow out of their reach.”

Economists see perils in this unfolding era, especially as governments champion national industries at the expense of competition. They point to history, notably the Great Depression, which was deepened by a wave of tit-for-tat trade protectionism kicked off by the United States through the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.

ImageProducts in transit at Felixstowe, a container port in southeast England. 
Credit…Ben Quinton for The New York Times

The law sharply raised tariffs on a vast range of agricultural and factory goods, prompting American trading partners to respond. As world trade disintegrated, nationalist rage spread, culminating in the brutalities of World War II.

The British election, and the splintering of the European trading bloc, amounts to the most consequential upsurge of economic nationalism in generations.

“Since Smoot-Hawley, I don’t think we have seen something as dramatic as this,” said Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics.

One major variable has gained clarity: Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration this week hailed an accord that clears passage of the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the deal that has allowed some $1.2 trillion worth of goods a year to be exchanged freely across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Yet on another front, Mr. Trump has threatened to impose tariffs on imported automobiles, a step that would be especially disruptive in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. Germany sells far more goods to the United States than it imports, drawing the ire of the American president.

Mr. Trump has openly warned that he could cite a national security threat as justification for auto tariffs. Trade experts have derided that strategy as an affront to the norms of the international trading system.

Last month, Mr. Trump allowed a self-imposed deadline to lapse without imposing auto tariffs. But he has left a major international industry guessing about what happens next.

Image

A cattle ranch near Lifford, Ireland. Economic integration has allowed goods to flow seamlessly from one end of Europe to another.
Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Since Britain shocked the world with its vote to abandon the European Union, its political institutions have tangled themselves in knots trying to decide what to do with their nebulous mandate to leave. Businesses have deferred hiring and investments, awaiting clarity on future trading terms.

The uncertainty has already exacted significant costs, and far beyond Europe, according to a new paper by Tarek Hassan, an economist at Boston University, and three European accounting experts, Stephan Hollander, Laurence van Lent and Ahmed Tahoun.

Every year since the referendum, the average company in Ireland — which trades heavily with Britain — has seen its growth in investment reduced by 4.2 percent, and hiring is 15 percent less than it otherwise would have been because of uncertainty, the paper concludes. Yet even across the Atlantic, the average American company has seen investment growth limited by 0.5 percent a year and hiring slowed by 1.7 percent.

“There is already a significant drop in employment as a result of the risks of Brexit,” Mr. Hassan said.

Some analysts suggested that the election enhanced the possibility that Mr. Johnson would pursue a softer form of Brexit, keeping Britain closer to the European market. His majority is so comfortable that he need not worry about alienating the hard-liners in his party who favor a clean break with Europe.

But some alteration now lies ahead. If Brexit uncertainty has been damaging, what replaces it is the near certainty of weaker economic growth and diminished living standards.

“It’s going to have massive implications,” Mr. Hassan said.

PM says ‘rather be dead in ditch’ than delay Brexit – as his brother resigns as minister

It was already a bit of a stretch to see losing his majority, expelling more than twenty colleagues from his parliamentary party and losing three Commons votes as part of an ingenious plan masterminded by his chief adviser Dominic Cummings.

“It’s created an atmosphere in which no-one believes what Boris Johnson says”—Parliament rebels

Also on the daily podcast: where America’s longest war went wrong and the economics of unreadably long terms and conditions

BORIS JOHNSON has lost his parliamentary majority. Conservative party rebels will now help push for a bill precluding a no-deal Brexit, making an early election look even more likely. Violence in Afghanistan continues, even as America’s negotiations with the Taliban wrap up; we ask where America’s longest war went wrong. And, unreadably long terms and conditions lead to more than consumer confusion—they break some basic economic principles. Runtime: 20 min

Boris Johnson Loses to Democracy

The prime minister is effectively at war with the Parliament for which he once promised to “take back control.”

LONDON — Boris Johnson has begun with defeat.

Legislators voted last night to seize control of Parliament, alarmed by the prime minister’s insistence that he will take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, even if no deal with the bloc has been reached. On Wednesday, opposition legislators and rebels from Mr. Johnson’s own party will try to pass a law mandating the prime minister to ask for an extension to the deadline if he still has no deal.

It promises to be a week of high political drama in Westminster — and the culmination of over two years of intricate tactical maneuvers and procedural minutiae that have marked British politics.

Time is so short because Mr. Johnson last Wednesday “prorogued” parliament, mothballing it for five weeks from next week: If the bill fails to become law by that point, it automatically falls. The unusual length of the suspension has already occasioned protests across Britain. Demonstrators called it a “coup,” and the speaker of the House of Commons called it a “constitutional outrage.”

Yet on Tuesday night, with Parliament having again flexed its long dormant democratic muscle, it was Mr. Johnson who looked isolated. Furious, he vowed to seek new elections, and stripped the whip from all his rebels — including prominent party grandees — effectively barring them from running again as Conservative candidates.

The conflict has laid bare deep tensions in Britain’s democracy — between the prime minister and Parliament, and between the people and the politics that claims to represent them.

Britain’s Parliament is anomalous. Having failed to sustain its 17th-century deposition of the monarchy, and having been the imperial power rather than the colonized one, Britain has never had a founding constitutional moment. Instead its democracy has evolved within an accreted mass of archaic institutions, including an unelected upper chamber that was until the late 20th century composed of hereditary aristocrats. This grandeur itself has sometimes been thought to be a powerful conservative influence: The Labour politician Nye Bevan once wrote it “lies like an Alp” on the mind of a new member of Parliament.

Under its ritual pomp, Parliament’s curious evolution has made it unusually powerful. A prime minister with a substantial majority has broad latitude to remake the country, as Margaret Thatcher and to a lesser extent Tony Blair did. But without a solid majority, Parliament has great power to resist even the most ambitious leader.

Legislators’ tactics this week are not entirely new: A similar procedure was used to take control and force Theresa May, Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, to seek an extension in April. But the complexity of the new bill — which intends to prescribe Mr. Johnson’s approach to the European Union in exacting detail — reflects the total breakdown in trust between executive and legislature.

April’s version of the bill passed partly because Mrs. May recognized she had lost; Mr. Johnson will use every means at his disposal to frustrate the new bill, including attempts to filibuster its progress in the unelected upper house. Promising a scorched earth, the prime minister is effectively at war with the Parliament for which he once promised to “take back control.”

Despite the throng of demonstrators outside Parliament — roared slogans and vast European Union flags are a daily backdrop to news broadcasts — the political progress of Brexit has been a markedly institutional affair, conducted through arcane procedural instruments and prominent court battles. The alien language of parliamentary procedure — “prorogation,” “humble addresses,” “paving motions” — is parsed for an unfamiliar public by constitutional experts who have rarely been in such demand.

The interviews with members of the public that dot the news vary from bafflement to outright loathing of politics; enthusiasm is a rare beast. According to Hansard Society research, civic trust is threadbare: Only a third of people trust politicians to act in the public interest, and just under half feel they have no influence at all on decision-making.

Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union was always likely to be a vastly complex technical matter, and the bloc’s tendency to conduct politics through intricate sequencing lends itself to squabbles over procedural minutiae. But the cause of the proliferating conflict in British politics has always been domestic: Despite losing her majority in 2017, Mrs. May’s conduct of Brexit was distinguished by her autocratic instincts and determination to avoid parliamentary consultation.

The same highhanded conduct saw her first dragged to the Supreme Court to assert Parliament’s right of a “meaningful vote,” and then locked in a battle with Parliament over the disclosure of the attorney general’s legal advice. That battle saw her censured for “contempt of Parliament.” The phrase epitomizes her successor’s entire attitude.

One consequence of the prominence of procedural conflicts since the Brexit referendum has been to transfer the political questions which drove it into arguments about legal permissibility. Questions about

  • the kind of state the Britain wishes to be,
  • relations among its constituent nations, its
  • draconian attitudes to migrants, its
  • vexed history in Ireland,
  • how it makes domestic political choices and
  • how far it wishes economic integration with other European states —

all are folded into, and sometimes disappear in, conflicts over parliamentary rights and legal obligations.

It is then no wonder that apparently arid matters suddenly take on intense but displaced political energy — the kind that saw High Court judges branded “enemies of the people” on the front pages of the tabloid press and that turned usually pacific sections of society into ardent protesters.

The institutional confinement of the Brexit process has been seized on by Dominic Cummings, the former director of Vote Leave, now Mr. Johnson’s chief adviser and architect of his hard-line strategy. Mr. Cummings recognizes a fault line in Britain’s democratic structure: between an exercise conducted by plebiscite — the Brexit referendum — and the conventional, deliberative methods used to interpret and deliver the consequences of that vote.

By painting the referendum as the sole truly democratic exercise, with all subsequent debates and concerns over rights a matter of cynical pettifogging and anti-Brexit trickery, he believes he can deliver a reconfigured political landscape, straddled by Mr. Johnson as a flaxen-haired avatar of the popular will.

Perhaps Mr. Cummings has in mind that half the people surveyed by Hansard claimed they longed for a strong leader to “break the rules” of politics. Yet the strongman has feet of clay. If suspending Parliament was intended to demonstrate Mr. Johnson’s credentials as a champion of the people, it managed to unite only 27 percent of them. Further overreach as the prime minister attempts to break Parliament to his will is unlikely to improve that number.

Nobody doubts new elections are on the horizon, the central issues of which will be shaped in the next weeks. It will be an election that Mr. Johnson intends to fight on a narrow Brexit question. To beat him, the Labour Party, which has been as troubled by division between the two Brexit camps as the country as a whole, will not only need a clear message on Brexit but also some means of bridging its divide. Democracy could be a powerful theme: not just its defense in Parliament but its extension beyond Parliament’s feudal residues and monarchical hangovers, into Britain’s regions and its antiquated electoral system.

It is widely known that Mr. Johnson wants a “people versus politicians” election. Perhaps it is time for the opposition to push for “the country versus Boris Johnson.”

Paul Krugman: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

As the October 31 deadline for Brexit — Britain’s exit from the European Union — approaches, things are getting wild. The wildness isn’t driven by concerns about Brexit’s long-run economic impact, although the professional consensus is that this will be negative but not catastrophic.

After all, Canada literally spent generations not having an open border with its giant neighbor to the south. In fact, it still doesn’t: NAFTA establishes free trade, not a customs union, so trucks crossing the border still have to present manifests certifying that they’re carrying U.S. or Canadian goods, not stuff transshipped from, say, China. Yet Canada hasn’t turned into a howling wilderness. Neither will Britain, in the long run; the best estimates suggest that once there’s been time to adjust, Brexit might take something like 2 percent off Britain’s G.D.P.

Instead, everyone is focused on the morning after — the first few weeks or months after Brexit (which still might not happen.)

Why is the short run scary? Being a member of the European Union doesn’t just mean zero tariffs on your neighbors, it means more or less frictionless movement of goods. Even goods from outside the E.U. pay tariffs at the port of entry, say Rotterdam, and can move freely once they’re inside Europe. Trucks arriving in Dover haven’t had to present a customs manifest to be reviewed before entering Britain, because there weren’t any customs. So they could just drive through. And the whole British economy has been structured around the expectation that goods could flow freely.

Given sufficient time and preparation, imposing new frictions wouldn’t have to be a huge problem. Britain is a modern country with a highly competent civil service. It could hire lots of customs inspectors, have sophisticated computer systems in place, and so on. Wait times for goods crossing the U.S.-Canada border are minimal, and eventually Britain should look the same.

But Britain isn’t ready. Last week the Times of London (as opposed to The New York Times) reported on a leaked version of Operation Yellowhammer, the British government’s contingency planning for a hard, no-deal Brexit. The expected consequences were scary: shortages of fuel, food, and medicine, a three-month “meltdown” at the ports, and more.

In response, officials in Boris Johnson’s government claimed that the leaked documents were out of date, and that more recent analyses were much less disturbing. And they announced that they would reassure the public today by publishing extracts from an updated version of Yellowhammer.

But plans for the release have been called off, reportedly because after scrambling over the weekend to produce a more benign scenario, officials still ended up with something grim enough to scare the public. This is the opposite of reassuring.

And it’s hard to see any legitimate public interest in keeping Brexit contingency planning secret. Why shouldn’t people and businesses be able to make plans based on the best available information? No, the secrecy is all about politics: the Johnson government doesn’t want the public to know what’s likely to happen.

Now, the truth is that it’s hard to know what will really happen (and the research economist in me is, rather ghoulishly, eager to find out.) I used to know a very good manager who had a sign on her desk that read, “When all else fails, lower your standards.” Can’t Britain mitigate the short-run disruption by making customs checks fast and sloppy? Of course, the outcome also depends on what happens in Calais — and we don’t know much about the E.U.’s contingency planning.

And the whole thing may yet be called off: I know nothing about British politics, but it does appear that there might be a snap general election before the Brexit date, and an opposition victory could put the thing on hold.

Anyway, interesting times.

Brexit Vote Goes Against Boris Johnson, and He Calls for an Election

British lawmakers on Tuesday rose up against Prime Minister Boris Johnson, moving to prevent him from taking the country out of the European Union without a formal agreement. The epic showdown has Britain on the verge of a snap general election.

After losing his first-ever vote as prime minister, Mr. Johnson stood up in Parliament and said he intended to present a formal request for an election to lawmakers, who would have to approve it.

A little over a month ago, Mr. Johnson, a brash, blustery politician often compared to President Trump, swept into office with a vow to finally wrest Britain from the European Union by whatever means necessary, even if it meant a disorderly, no-deal departure.

Now, Parliament has pulled the rug out from under him, and Mr. Johnson is at risk of falling into the same Brexit quagmire that dragged down his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May.

The lawmakers forced his hand by voting by 328 to 301 to take control of Parliament away from the government and vote on legislation as soon as Wednesday that would block the prime minister from making good on his threat of a no-deal Brexit.

That prompted an angry response from the prime minister.

“I don’t want an election, the public don’t want an election, but if the House votes for this bill tomorrow, the public will have to choose who goes to Brussels on Oct. 17 to sort this out and take this country forward,” Mr. Johnson said, referring to the next European Union summit.

Tuesday was a critical moment in Britain’s tortured, three-year effort to extract itself from the European Union. The saga has divided Britons, torn apart the ruling Conservative Party and prompted complaints that Mr. Johnson has trampled the conventions of the country’s unwritten constitution.

A majority of lawmakers are determined to block a withdrawal from the European Union without a deal, which they believe would be disastrous for the country’s economy. Tuesday’s vote suggested they have the numbers to succeed.

Mr. Johnson’s aides had made clear that, in the event of a defeat on Tuesday, he would seek a general election on Oct. 14 — just a little over two weeks before the Brexit deadline of Oct. 31.

Phillip Lee with the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, after defecting from his Conservative Party on Tuesday.
CreditRoger Harris/U.K Parliament

The accelerating pace of events suggests that Britain’s Brexit nightmare may finally be approaching an endgame after years of paralysis.

Tuesday’s vote also marked the moment when Mr. Johnson’s hardball tactics, for once, were met with equal resistance.

On a day of high drama, Mr. Johnson lost his working majority in Parliament even before the vote took place, when one Conservative rebel, Phillip Lee, quit the party to join the Liberal Democrats, who have managed to stage a resurgence by positioning themselves as an unambiguously anti-Brexit party.

The practical effect of Mr. Lee’s defection for Mr. Johnson was limited, however, because the government would fall only if it were defeated in a confidence motion.

But in moment weighty with symbolism, Mr. Lee walked across the floor of the House of Commons and sat beside Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as the prime minister was speaking about the recent Group of 7 summit. Mr. Lee accused Mr. Johnson of pursuing a damaging withdrawal from the European Union in unprincipled ways, and of “putting lives and livelihoods at risk.”

Mr. Lee’s break with the Tories was most likely just the first of many.

On Tuesday, Downing Street said it would press ahead with plans to discipline those rebels who voted against the government by expelling them from the Conservative Party in Parliament. They include two former chancellors of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond and Kenneth Clarke, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.

That could threaten Mr. Johnson’s ability to manage day-to-day business in Parliament, underscoring the need for a new election.

The extent of the Tory civil war was on full display as several of Mr. Johnson’s Conservative critics, including the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, lobbed hostile questions at him, making it plain that they had not been brought back into line by threats of expulsion from the party.

Opponents of a no-deal Brexit argue that Mr. Johnson’s promise to leave the bloc without a deal, if necessary, would be catastrophic for the British economy. Many experts say it could lead to shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and wreak havoc on parts of the manufacturing sector that rely on the seamless flow of goods across the English Channel. Leaked government reports paint a bleak picture of what it might look like.

Mr. Johnson says he needs to keep the no-deal option on the table to give him leverage in talks in Brussels, because an abrupt exitwould also damage continental economies, if not as much as Britain’s. The prime minister appealed to his own lawmakers not to support what he called “Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill,” a reference to the leader of the opposition Labour Party.

“It means running up the white flag,” he said.

Mr. Johnson also claimed to have made progress in talks with European Union leaders, although his own Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, on Monday gave a much less rosy assessment of the state of negotiations.

Demonstrators protesting Mr. Johnson and Brexit marched outside Parliament on Tuesday.
CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times

Britain’s main demand is for the European Union to ditch the so-called Irish backstop, a guarantee that the bloc insists it needs to ensure that goods flow smoothly across the Irish border whatever happens in trade negotiations with Britain. Mr. Johnson said he planned to visit Dublin next week for talks with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar.

Conservative rebels believe Mr. Johnson is more interested in uniting Brexit supporters behind him ahead of a general election than in securing an agreement in Brussels.

One former chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, accused Mr. Johnson of setting impossible conditions for the negotiations, attaching as much blame as possible to the European Union for the failure to get a deal and then seeking to hold a “flag-waving election” before the disadvantages of leaving without an agreement become apparent.

The bitter dispute has taken Britain into new political territory.

Last week, Mr. Johnson provoked outrage by curtailing Parliament’s sessions in September and October, compacting the amount of time lawmakers would have to deal with the most crucial decision the country has faced in decades.

Mr. Johnson’s allies argue that it is the rebels who are subverting the principles of Britain’s unwritten constitution by seizing control of the proceedings of Parliament that are normally the preserve of the government.

The European Commission said on Tuesday that while the frequency of meetings between its Brexit team and the British negotiator, David Frost, had increased, little headway had been made toward avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Asked whether the British government was using reports of its talks with the commission for political purposes at home, the commission’s spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, said that the body was “an honest broker, as always.” She said she could not “report any concrete proposals having being made that we have seen.”

Mr. Hammond, a senior member of the cabinet two months ago, told the BBC on Tuesday that Mr. Johnson’s claim of progress on the negotiations was “disingenuous.”

To add to the turmoil and confusion, the opposition Labour Party suggested it might thwart Mr. Johnson’s attempt to push for a general election, should it come to that. Under a 2011 law, the prime minister needs a two-thirds majority to secure a snap election, although it is possible that the government might try to legislate to set that provision aside, a move that would mean it needs only a simply majority.

There is so little trust in British politics that Mr. Johnson’s opponents fear that he might request an election for Oct. 14 but then switch the date until after Oct. 31 as part of a move to lock in a no-deal withdrawal.

Labour has said that its priority is to stop Britain leaving the European Union without a deal, because of concerns about what such a departure would mean for the economy.

But Labour’s stance underscores that the backdrop to everything in British politics is a sense that a general election is looming, with key players maneuvering for the most advantageous moment.