As Boris Johnson laid out his plan at political Cabinet on Thursday, it quickly became apparent how much of it was dependent on factors outside of his control. I write in The Sun this morning that he said that he still hoped that the EU would offer only the shortest of extensions, forcing parliament to get on with it. But he admitted that the EU was inclined to offer an extension to the end of January and that Emmanuel Macron was fighting a lonely battle against this. Earlier in the day, the Elysée had told Number 10 that the French President was too isolated on the issue in the EU to veto a longer extension. In a sign of how much he is relying on Macron, Boris Johnson then pleadingly recited the opening line of the carol ‘Oh come, oh come Emmanuel’.
One of Number 10’s hope is that EU leaders will see the opposition refusing both an election and to pass the withdrawal agreement as is and come round to Macron’s way of thinking: that there is little point in offering this country a three month extension as parliament will just waste the time. A Number 10 source predicts that the sight of the opposition blocking an election will ‘push the EU towards either the Macron position or a very long extension’.
In a sign that Boris Johnson’s gambit is having some success, the EU is waiting until parliament has voted on an election before deciding what length of extension to offer.
If this doesn’t work, then the government hope they can shame Labour into having an election. The Chief Whip told those present that they would ‘make Labour look like right dicks’ if they didn’t vote for an election.
But not everyone is convinced this will work. One of those present tells that if they were a Labour MP they would ‘rather look like a dick than lose their seat’.
I understand, though, that Number 10 intend to bring multiple votes to try and force an election. One Cabinet Minister who has discussed this strategy with Boris Johnson tells me that ‘every time [Labour vote this down] it advertises that they are not prepared to support Brexit or have an election, it reinforces the sense that he is the only person trying to get things done’.
Boris Johnson himself has told allies that if Labour rejects his offer to pass the withdrawal agreement and have an election, then it will be an ‘effective demonstration’ that this parliament won’t—and can’t—break the current deadlock.
Proving that this parliament can’t break the deadlock is one thing, actually breaking it is quite another. One of those present on Thursday tells me that Boris Johnson himself seemed genuinely angry at Labour about their refusal to give him an election and ‘betrayed a sense he’s cornered’.
Something must happen before January 31st, though. If it doesn’t, the threat of no deal will be back on the table—and if the UK has wasted this extension, European patience may snap and they might not offer another one.