The Remainers are celebrating after last tonight’s defeat of the government and writing Boris off as a busted flush. ‘Johnson’s Brexit strategy in ruins as anti-no deal MPs inflict defeat,’ says the headline on this morning’s FT. But I’m not convinced this was such a bad night for the Prime Minister.
Boris’s response to yesterday’s loss has been to table a motion calling for a general election. Corbyn’s position, as I understand it, is that he will only agree to an election after the ‘anti-no deal bill’ forcing Boris to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline on 19 October has been approved by both Houses of Parliament. (Boris refers to it as ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill’.) Assuming the bill isn’t ‘talked out’ in the Lords, and assuming Boris doesn’t advise the Queen to withhold her assent, that would effectively prevent Boris from setting an election date after 31 October. Until now, Downing Street has maintained that if the government was defeated by a vote of no confidence, the PM would not resign, but sit on his hands for the 14-day period stipulated in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, at which point a general election would automatically be triggered. He would then set the date of the election for after 31 October, so the UK would leave the European Union by default during the campaign.
If the extension bill becomes law, by contrast, Boris cannot pursue that strategy. Even if he set the date of the election after 31 October, he would still have to ask for an extension on 19 October in his capacity as caretaker Prime Minister and the election would take place before we’ve left.
So Corbyn’s reasoning is that if he makes his support of a general election conditional on the bill becoming law, Boris will have no choice but to set the date of the election before 31 October. Assuming it plays out as expected, an election will still take place, but in mid-October – 15 October is the likely date – rather than after we’ve left. It will effectively be a second referendum on Brexit. Provided the Conservatives win that contest, the passing of the extension bill won’t tie Boris’s hands because he can use his majority to repeal the new law before it compels him to ask for an extension on 19 October. He can go then go to the European Council meeting on 17 October and credibly threaten no deal if there’s still no renegotiation and take Britain out on 31 October whether he gets a new deal or not.
But will the Tories win? Corbyn’s calculation is that they’re less likely to if the election is held before we’ve left than after, presumably because he believes the pro-Brexit vote will be split between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party. No doubt the Brexit Party will still pose a threat to the Tories after we’ve left, but much less of one, particularly if Boris takes us out with no deal.
There’s some logic to this. While it’s possible that Boris and Nigel Farage will enter into an electoral pact – something I discuss in my Spectator column this week – the chances of that are quite low. Boris will be concerned that an alliance with Farage will drive some Conservative voters into the arms of the Liberal Democrats, particularly in the 25 per cent of Tory seats where a majority voted Remain in 2016, while Farage will be wary of alienating potential Labour defectors. There’s also the fact that Boris would prefer to leave with a deal, whereas Farage has said he won’t countenance a pact unless Boris unequivocally endorses no deal.
But the difficulty for Corbyn is that the pro-Remain forces are even more divided. I daresay some of those Labour voters who defected to the Lib Dems, the Greens and Plaid Cymru in the European elections in May will return to the fold, but if the current polls are anything to go by not nearly enough. On the contrary, the latest YouGov poll puts the Conservative on 34 per cent and Labour on 22 per cent, enough to give the Tories a comfortable majority.
Now, a lot can happen during a general election campaign, as we saw in 2017. But the gulf between a Labour Party led by Jeremy ‘constructive ambiguity’ Corbyn and the unambiguously pro-Remain parties is surely greater than that between the Boris-led Conservatives and the Brexit Party. That’s particularly true, given that Boris has expelled those MPs who voted against the government last night (and may be one reason he did it). So unless something goes badly wrong, the Conservatives are less likely to bleed votes to the Brexit Party than Labour to the pro-Remain parties. And don’t forget that Boris’s track record when it comes to winning elections is pretty good. Unlikely Theresa May, he’s been tried and tested in the field.
If this analysis is correct, the corollary is that Labour would have a better chance of winning an election if it was held after we’ve left, particularly if we leave with no deal and the effects are as catastrophic as Corbyn seems to think. In those circumstances, there would be less chance of Labour voters defecting to the Lib Dems, the Greens or the Welsh nationalists. On the contrary, it would be a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives, with Europe no longer an issue capable of splitting the anti-Tory vote. A post-Brexit election would be about the NHS, the economy, education, etc. – safer ground for Corbyn.
So it could be that Corbyn made a strategic blunder yesterday by, effectively, forcing Boris to hold a general election in which Europe will be the central issue. I’m not suggesting this was Dominic Cummings’ master plan all along. I think he and Boris and the rest of the top team would prefer to leave on 31 October without the necessity of having to win an election first because, of course, they might not win and that would probably mean the end of Brexit. But the situation they find themselves in is clearly a contingency they’ve been preparing for. Keir Starmer said on the Today programme this morning that Labour would delay an election until after the bill has become law because it refused ‘to dance to Boris’s tune’. But I can still hear Boris’s tune playing in the background. Not the A-side perhaps, but the B-side.
I may be wrong about what will happen in the next few days. The extension bill may not receive Royal Assent and, even if it does, Corbyn may change his mind about supporting Boris’s call for a general election. Assuming the bill does pass, he may decide to ‘no confidence’ Boris instead. But in the absence of Corbyn being able to install himself as Prime Minister – and he doesn’t have the votes for that – it would lead to an election anyway. So whatever happens, it looks like we’re heading for a snap election in mid-October – one the Conservatives are odds-on to win. At which point we can finally get on with Brexit.