MPs voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday night to end the Brexit paralysis at Westminster and put the issue back to the people, setting a general election for December 12.
Boris Johnson’s plan to hold a pre-Christmas election was approved by 438 votes to 20, after Labour finally agreed to drop its opposition to an early poll.
Almost 200 MPs abstained in the key vote, many of them Labour MPs who fear that their party faces a possible election rout and who favoured holding a second EU referendum before going to the polls.
Mr Johnson brought 10 Conservative rebel MPs back into the fold, as he tried to heal party wounds and prepare the ground for what could be a tight and highly volatile contest.
The British prime minister sacked 21 Tory MPs last month after they defied him over Brexit, but he has restored the party whip to nearly half, allowing them to run as Tory candidates at what will be seen as a “Brexit election”.
His peace offering to the pro-European wing came as MPs voted for a snap December election. A conciliatory Mr Johnson told the rebels he would campaign as a “One Nation” centrist Conservative.
The MPs readmitted to the party include former ministers Alistair Burt, Greg Clark, Nick Soames, Margot James and Ed Vaizey, but other big beasts of the Conservative party, including former chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, remain in exile.
Mr Johnson’s decision removes the threat that some of the rebels could stand as independents and split the Tory vote in a general election where every seat will count if the prime minister is to secure a Commons majority.
His team admitted the snap election was “a gamble” but the Tory party needs a solid majority to deliver his Brexit deal, which will be put on ice while the country chooses a new parliament.
But senior Tories claimed that Mr Johnson risked losing Brexit altogether, with Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party all backing a second EU referendum, which could ultimately reverse the 2016 Leave vote.
Although the Conservatives enjoy a double-digit lead over Labour in opinion polls, Theresa May went into the 2017 election in an even stronger position but ended up losing seats in the ensuing hung parliament.
One former Tory cabinet minister said: “It could easily end up with another hung parliament.” If the election is inconclusive, it could simply open another chapter of Brexit paralysis in British politics.
MPs on Tuesday approved Mr Johnson’s legislation to hold an election on December 12; opposition parties failed to move forward the date of the poll to December 9 to allow students to vote in university towns.
Labour MPs also failed in their efforts to extend the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds and to about 3m EU nationals living in the UK.
If the legislation passes through the House of Lords, as expected, Britain is heading towards its first December election in almost a century. It will be the second general election since Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016 and the third in less than five years.
Mr Johnson has concluded it would be better to hold an election now, rather than try to force his Brexit deal through parliament in the face of strong opposition — and with no House of Commons majority — over the coming weeks or months.
“Parliament will keep on delaying,” said one ally of the prime minister, warning that Mr Johnson might have to seek another Brexit delay beyond the January 31 date agreed with the EU. “That would be fatal.”
Yesterday Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, agreed to back the early election, having dragged his feet for weeks. Many Labour MPs fear they will lose their seats in a Brexit election, given the party’s convoluted position.
“We have now heard from the EU that the extension of Article 50 to January 31 has been confirmed so, for the next three months, our condition of taking no deal off the table has now been met,” Mr Corbyn said.
The Labour leader hopes his party can focus voters on other issues, particularly on health and education. “We will now launch the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen,” he said.
Meanwhile Donald Tusk, European Council president, sent a valedictory tweet warning Britain that the EU27 might not extend Brexit again beyond January 31.
“Please make the best use of this time,” he said. “I also want to say goodbye to you as my mission here is coming to an end. I will keep my fingers crossed for you.”