Boris Johnson appears to have chosen to fight an election rather than to deliver Brexit. In the wake of yesterday’s failed third attempt to force a poll, his main options were a) to bring back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill or b) to shelve it and go instead for a December poll – on the terms offered by the Liberal Democrats and the SNP.
As we write, they are willing to back a Bill which will, in effect, suspend the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act and set a date for an election. The Government is offering December 12; they seem to want December 9. But whatever date is agreed will be written into the Bill, so that Johnson can’t tamper with it, and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be dropped. In return, the SNP/LibDem alliance won’t force amendments on (say) votes at 16, The new Bill will be introduced today. It won’t require the two-thirds majority support that the Government, under the terms of the FTPA, has been three times unable to gain.
There is many a slip between cup and lip, and it may be that one of the parties concerned changes its mind, or that the agreement between them breaks down, or that the Bill flounders in some way. But as matters stand, we are heading towards an election a fortnight or so before Christmas.
So why is the Prime Minister allowing the LibDems and the SNP to set the main terms of the poll? Very simply, the temptation to stuff Jeremy Corbyn (or to try to) has proved too great to resist. Johnson is gambling that Labour, whose position on Brexit appears to be that it will negotiate a deal for which it will then not campaign, won’t be able to cope with a December poll, especially given the unpopularity of its leader. His enemy’s other enemies – the SNP and the LibDems – have made the same calculation. Labour last led in an opinion poll back at the end of July. On current showing, Electoral Calculus gives Johnson a majority of 84.
If only life were that straightforward. A moment’s reflection shows that the Prime Minister is betting the farm on a gamble that may fail. For the LibDems and the SNP aren’t fighting Labour only – or even each other. They are pushing for a December poll because both believe they can take seats off the Conservatives, too.
Who is bluffing whom? Are the SNP and the LibDems wrong, because Johnson will poll better in Scotland and Remain England than they think? Or do the Prime Minister’s sums not add up – because he won’t be able to win enough Midlands and Northern seats from Labour to make up for those he loses elsewhere to the LibDems and the SNP? Might Corbyn prove more resilient than the Westminster Village consensus has it, just as he did in 2017? Could the election turn out not to focus on Brexit at all? Above all, what will voters make of a Conservative Party that is asking for their support yet again before we have left the EU?
The long and short of it is that Johnson is risking his premiership in December’s cold and dark in order to beat Corbyn now. Number Ten fears that those Midlands and Northern voters will only plump for the Tories pre-Brexit – and that, by the spring, Labour may have changed its leader.
A weakness in the Conservative position is that, given last week’s Second Reading vote, the Withdrawal Bill could probably have made it through Parliament. And a week ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in our fortnightly Moggcast, pooh-poohed the idea that it could be amended in a way that would be fatal to the Government. If voters decide that the Prime Minister has passed on the opportunity to deliver Brexit simply in order to score off Labour, they may not take kindly to his appeal for their support. We fervently hope that Johnson succeeds where Theresa May failed only two years ago.