Boris Johnson will make his third attempt to call a general election. In an interview with the BBC, the Prime Minister unveiled his new offer to opposition MPs: he will bring the Withdrawal Agreement Bill back to the Commons on the condition that there is a general election on 12 December. Explaining his decision, Johnson said that he believed the UK was heading for an extension – something he regretted.
He said he was willing to bring his Withdrawal Agreement Bill back to the Commons so long as MPs agree that a general election will follow. The reason?
‘In order to create a deadline that is credible in everybody’s mind then there must be that hard stop of a general election.’
But is it in Johnson’s control when an election happens? Johnson will hold a vote on Monday under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act which requires two thirds of MPs to agree to an election in order for it to go ahead. Johnson said he was hopeful he would be successful as it would be ‘morally incredible’ for Labour to refuse. If he fails in his mission, Johnson suggested his government would simply keep trying.
The Prime Minister argues that his offer is win/win for MPs as those who wish to pass the Brexit deal before an election have the chance to. However, if MPs agree to his plans they wouldn’t have that long to go over the legislation ahead of the dissolution of parliament on November 6. The 21 Tory rebels currently without the whip have suggested they as a block are against an election before Christmas. However, the opportunity to pass the WAB before an election means that some are reconsidering their opposition.
Whether or not Johnson’s gambit works comes down to Labour. While many Labour MPs are against an imminent election, there has been a push this week from prominent Corbyn supporters and members of the shadow cabinet to say that the party should go to the polls if an extension is secured. The SNP have hinted that it is something they will go for if an extension is secured (the terms of which are expected by Friday). However, the initial signs suggest that the SNP and Liberal Democrats do not wish to grant an election on Johnson’s terms. It follows that they could be so inclined to refuse to vote with the government on Monday and instead potentially try and bring down the government in a confidence vote.
The gamble Johnson is taking by calling an election is whether or not he will be blamed by the public for an early trip to the polls. As Theresa May discovered in 2017, voters tend not to think favourably of extra visits to the polling booth. Johnson and his team are hoping that the general public will view this as necessary. In the Spectator cover piece this week, we look at the reasons the Tories believe a pre-Brexit election could work to their advantage now that a deal is on the table.
There’s also another factor at play. The EU is yet to grant an extension. If opposition MPs refuse to back Johnson’s call for a general election and at the same time fail to come together around an alternative plan it could lead the EU to take a different approach with an extension (EU leaders are currently expected to offer a three month extension). Emmanuel Macron is believed to be in favour of only a very short Brexit extension that would focus the minds of MPs into passing a deal. If EU leaders simply see more Brexit drift, they could come around to the French president’s way of thinking.
Update: Labour MPs have been sent instructions from the party instructing them to abstain (or vote against) the government’s election motion on Monday. However, Labour sources say this is a holding position and a decision will be made once the terms and length of extension are known.
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