As EU leaders mull over what length of extension to grant the UK, talk in Westminster is focused on whether an election is imminent. The line from No. 10 is that Boris Johnson will push for a general election if the EU agrees to delay Brexit until January.
Earlier today Johnson met with Jeremy Corbyn to discuss a new programme motion – this opens the possibility of Johnson trying to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill before any election. Even though the government’s original programme motion (which would have allowed the UK to leave by 31st October) failed, the bill did pass its second reading. That means there could be the votes to pass it into law – depending on amendments.
However, the meeting proved a mixed bag. Johnson – accompanied by Dominic Cummings and Chief Whip Mark Spencer – were interested in Labour’s position on a general election if an extension is secured. Meanwhile, Corbyn – accompanied by Seumas Milne and Opposition Chief Whip Nick Brown – saw the meeting as primarily being about a programme motion. Cummings told Labour that France could veto a Brexit extension – at which point Brown replied: ‘I think they’re taking the mickey out of you’. A Labour source suggests even Johnson was amused at this point. In terms of progress, the two chief whips agreed to talk further about agreeing a new programme motion for the WAB. However, it was clear from the meeting that Cummings is not particularly keen on the idea.
So, where does this leave things? In truth, whether the government attempts another election vote or has another stab at passing the WAB rests on what EU leaders decide regarding the Brexit delay. The majority view in Downing Street is that if the UK is offered a lengthy extension to January or beyond, Boris Johnson will push for a general election. The Prime Minister pointed to this at PMQs today – suggesting that the SNP’s Ian Blackford vote for a general election if he is so unhappy with the Brexit deal on offer. An election going ahead rests on enough opposition MPs coming around to the idea – but the initial signs have been promising.
Were the EU to turn around and offer either no extension or a very short two week technical extension then it’s likely Johnson and his team would table another programme motion (over a longer period) and attempt to pass the WAB. The concern in Downing Street, however, is that without the threat of no deal there is not a parliamentary majority for Johnson’s deal unamended. Johnson allies think that many Labour MPs were happy to vote for it at second reading to signal to their constituents that they support Brexit – but will hold back their support unless a customs union is added. This means there is continued scepticism that Johnson can pass a deal in this parliament and an election is inevitable.