Although Downing Street has heralded today the ‘first day of the election campaign’, Boris Johnson is yet to be able to call an election. In the early hours of Thursday, the government called off its efforts to filibuster the cross-party bill to legislate against a no-deal Brexit in the House of Lords. The plan to talk the bill out in the Lords had been seen as a long shot but worth a try.
So, what’s behind the change of tactics? Given that Jeremy Corbyn said in the Chamber on Wednesday his party would agree to a general election if the bill received royal assent, it appears that Johnson is trying to remove the Labour leader’s excuse for refusing to agree to a snap poll. On Monday, the bill will have received royal assent and the government will try again to call an election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – which requires two thirds of MPs to support it to pass.
There’s a hope that by Monday Labour will be on board. However, Labour could opt for other tactics. Corbyn is under pressure from figures including Keir Starmer to hold off on an early election until after an extension has been requested on 19 October. This is something Team Johnson wish to avoid as it would mean an election after the Brexit deadline has passed.
So, if Labour refuse to play ball, what options are left? There’s talk within government of proposing a one-line bill that would say something along the lines of “not withstanding the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, there will be an election on 15 October”. That would require a simple majority – and the SNP has suggested it could back such a measure. However, what’s troubling government figures is that such a vote would be amendable and after a mass operation to withdraw the whip from Tory Brexit rebels this week, Johnson is far short of a working majority. One member of government tells me they fear an amendment could be added to try to change the date – or reduce the voting age to 16. ‘They could make the circumstances for an election very difficult for us.’
There are a handful of other options Johnson could try if he finds himself stuck in office against his will. There’s some talk in the party of Johnson trying to call a confidence motion in himself – would Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour really want to go on the record saying they had confidence in a Tory prime minister? Or, if the bill reaches royal assent and there is pressure on Johnson to request a delay, he could simply refuse and see what his critics do. Launch a legal challenge? Perhaps.
Downing Street is adamant that Johnson will not request a Brexit delay in any shape or form. In his speech today in Yorkshire, Johnson said he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than delay Brexit. Should push come to shove, the prime minister could resign rather than go through with a delay. Johnson could suggest that the Queen ask Corbyn to request and sign any extension, thereby putting pressure on the remain alliance, and highlighting rifts over a so-called government of national unity. Such a move would also be seized on by Tories in an eventual election as proof Corbyn was against Brexit.