Boris Johnson saw his one-vote Commons majority vanish before his eyes on Tuesday, as a statement by the prime minister to parliament was undermined by the very public defection of the Conservative MP Phillip Lee to the Liberal Democrats.
The stunt, in which the pro-remain Bracknell MP walked across the chamber to the Lib Dem benches flanked by two of his new colleagues, happened as Johnson updated the Commons on last month’s G7 summit, a statement devoted mainly to Brexit.
In a carefully stage-managed manoeuvre, as Johnson began his statement Lee, who resigned as a junior justice minister last year over Theresa May’s Brexit policy, walked across the floor of the Commons chamber, sitting down on the Lib Dem benches next to Jane Dodds, the newly sworn in MP for Brecon and Radnorshire.
At the same time, the party released a statement from Lee – long the focus of rumours he could quit – saying he had departed due to the way Johnson was pursuing a “damaging Brexit” that could “put lives at risk”.
In his statement, Lee said: “This Conservative government is aggressively pursuing a damaging Brexit in unprincipled ways. It is putting lives and livelihoods at risk unnecessarily and it is wantonly endangering the integrity of the United Kingdom.
“More widely, it is undermining our country’s economy, democracy and role in the world. It is using political manipulation, bullying and lies. And it is doing these things in a deliberate and considered way.”
The Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, said she was delighted Lee was joining at such a crucial time in British politics.
She said: “He brings almost 10 years of parliamentary experience and decades of professional expertise. He shares our commitment to prevent a disastrous no deal Brexit, and to stop Brexit altogether.
At the start of a crucial day in the Commons, Johnson condemned a backbench plan aimed at delaying Brexit to avert a no-deal departure, calling it a “surrender bill”. Jeremy Corbyn responded by criticising the PM’s language.
MPs will vote on Tuesday evening on whether to take control of the order paper to allow the passage of the bill. Johnson has promised to seek a general election if they do so, and to remove the whip from any Tory rebels who back the plan.
Answering questions following the statement the PM said Tory MPs who might subsequently vote against an eventual deal he might reach would also be ejected, saying: “I think you can take it that’s what sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
Lee’s public defection appeared to temporarily put Johnson off his stride as he addressed MPs on the G7 summit in Biarritz, and Brexit negotiations he claimed were progressing well.
Continually barracked by Labour MPs, Johnson said he would never agree to another extension.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “The country wants this done and they want the referendum respected. We are negotiating a deal and though I am confident of getting a deal, we will leave by 31 October in all circumstances. There will be no further pointless delay.
“This house has never before voted the prime minister to surrender such a crucial decision to the discretion of our friends and neighbours overseas.”
The bill, if passed, would mandate a new Brexit date of 31 January if no departure deal was reached by mid-October, also mandating the PM to accept whatever delay the EU sought, if MPs agreed to this.
Johnson said: “It would enable our friends in Brussels to dictate the terms of the negotiation. That’s what it does. There is only one way to describe this deal: it is Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill. It means running up the white flag.”
In response, the Labour leader said he condemned the use of the word “surrender”, adding: “I hope he will reflect on his use of language. We’re not surrendering because we’re at war with Europe. They are, surely, our partners.”
Corbyn mocked Johnson’s claims of progress in Brexit talks, saying the EU did not agree on this. He said: “It is increasingly clear that this reckless government only has one plan – to crash out of the EU without a deal.”