According to today’s Times, Labour have abandoned plans to stage a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s ministry when the Commons returns from recess.
The reason for this is fairy clear: although Ken Clarke is apparently willing to put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, not enough MPs are prepared to do so for the Labour leader to be the viable head of an alternative government.
Without another government waiting in the wings, all that no-confidencing Johnson would achieve would be two weeks of paralysis followed by a general election, the timing of which would be in the hands of… the Prime Minister.
Instead, Labour are apparently reviving proposals to have the legislature attempt to impose legislation on the Government forcing it to seek – and accept – an extension of Article 50.
This news has broken alongside reporting that Brussels might be about to offer the Government a unilateral extension, in hope of robbing the Prime Minister of his ticking clock and forcing him to acquiesce.
Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. On the numbers level, the so-called ‘Cooper-Letwin’ bill barely passed last time, thanks in part to inexcusable complacency on the part of certain loyalist MPs. If the Government can hold together nearly all of its Commons coalition of Tory and Democratic Unionist MPs the other side would need to turn out almost every other MP in the House to win.
This time the Daily Telegraph reports that up to 17 Tory MPs might back the Opposition’s bill, although the scale of such rebellions has usually been overstated in the past.
Meanwhile the odds of Johnson being pressured into an accepting an extension by Brussels seem slim. Ever since taking office he has given every impression of believing that finally delivering Britain’s departure from the EU is central to the survival of his ministry.
If his Commons opponents do prevail, that will present its own problems. We have previously explored how having legislation imposed on the Government via fly-by-night accretions of backbench and opposition MPs undermines political accountability.
This Government shows every sign of being better prepared to resist such efforts than was Theresa May’s, but should it pass it seems plausible that Johnson would use the passage of such legislation to justify seeking the election he is obviously teeing up for.
And if Corbyn, Clarke et al fail to muster the votes? Then prorogation takes effect and the Prime Minister’s gamble delivers its first payoff, laying the groundwork for a final climactic showdown over his Queen’s Speech once the House returns from conference season.