The Sunday papers are packed to the brim with speculative Brexit stories. Boris Johnson will refuse to sign a letter to the EU requesting an extension under the terms of the Benn Act. No, he will sign it – as indicated by the Government’s evidence to a Scottish court last week. John Bercow will become Prime Minister if Johnson loses a no confidence vote. No, the Prime Minister will refuse to quit, and will hunker down in Number Ten. Vicktor Orban will veto an extension in the first place, so none of this will happen. No, he will not veto an extension.
The only point on which they agree is that the EU will not accept Johnson’s new Brexit plan.
Rather than comment on any of these claims, let us carry out an enquiry of our own. It is usually assumed that if an extension is agreed, a general election will soon follow – whoever is Prime Minister.
That expectation should be questioned. Consider the state of play in the Commons.
There are 288 Conservative MPs. Let us assume that they would all vote for an election were an extension to take place. Then add to them the ten DUP MPs. That takes us to 298 MPs. Then add the 18 Liberal Democrats. That takes us to 316 MPs. Then add the 35 SNP MPs.
That takes us to 351 MPs – more than enough to force an election were the vote to take place by simple majority, even if a few independents are not to be added to this total. These might include John Mann, who is shortly to become a peer, and possibly Ian Austin and Ivan Lewis, who voted on September 9 for an election.
However, any motion that the Government proposes seeking an election must, under the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, win a two thirds majority of the whole House to take effect. Boris Johnson has already failed to gain one twice. He won by 298 to 56 on September 4, and by 293 to 46 on September 9. Not enough: he needs 433 votes.
Furthermore, it is not certain that any of the other parties above will actually vote for an election when push comes to shove.
The Liberal Democrats have an incentive to vote for one once an extension is agreed, because they believe they will take seats off the Conservatives and perhaps Labour in any poll. So have the SNP, because they think that they can take seats off the Tories, too – and win some constituencies from Labour and maybe the Liberal Democrats, too. That’s why we added them to the Conservative and DUP total above.
However, either party might not be prepared to back a no confidence vote if they believe that the Commons could back a second referendum – which both could prefer to an election.
The pro-Remain lobby in the Labour Party, led in effect by Keir Starmer, would presumably take that view. So might Labour MPs who aren’t so much anti-Brexit as worried about losing their seats in an election. That’s a lot of MPs. So Labour might continue to abstain, as it did for both the September votes.
Then there is the Independent Group for Change. Why should any of its MPs vote for an election, knowing that it would, in all likelihood, end their jobs and salaries? Why, for the same reason, should any of the 21 former Conservative MPs who are without the Whip? Why should the bulk of the remaing 14 independents?
Much is written about the possibility of Boris Johnson “squatting in Downing Street” if he loses a no confidence vote. But perhaps the image is better applied not to one MP, but to all of them.
For were they to refuse to vote for an election, under the conditions we describe, they would effectively be squatting in the Commons: drawing their salaries; building up their pensions, and being subsidised by the taxpayer despite not doing their job (or the legislative bit of it, anyway).
They would thus become the elected equivalents of the welfare scroungers of tabloid legend – dragging the reputation of politics, party and Parliament even deeper into the mud.