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18 March 2015updated 07 Jun 2021 2:51pm

For Boris Johnson, all roads likely lead to a general election

By Patrick Maguire

Have MPs dashed Boris Johnson’s hopes of forcing a no-deal Brexit through parliament? That’s the conclusion some of his opponents have drawn from the successful passage of amendments that will require the Commons to sit through October, blocking any attempt at suspension.

Some 47 Conservative MPs defied the whip: 17, including the now former digital minister Margot James, voted for the plan, while another 30 abstained, most notably cabinet ministers Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart and Greg Clark. Not only do those numbers add up to the biggest Tory rebellion on no deal to date, but they also well exceed the total who rebelled to back similar plans that did not pass last week.

Why? In short, Tory MPs have finally decided that they are in last chance saloon: Boris Johnson’s pledge to refuse any agreement that includes the Irish backstop means, barring some unforeseen U-turn from the EU, that he will default to a no-deal position very quickly indeed. In that harsh light, yesterday’s votes to block prorogation took on a new urgency. While the mere fact of the Commons sitting won’t stop no-deal by itself – MPs will have to agree on alternative to make that happen – it does give the resistance more time and potential opportunities to do so.

For Boris Johnson, it is a rude reminder that the parliamentary arithmetic is not on his side. His team’s hope has always been that, when push came to shove, comparatively few Tory MPs would be willing to cross the rubicon of rebellion on no-deal, especially if it meant going nuclear and voting down the government in a confidence motion. But now the stakes are clearer, Tory rebels feel empowered – if not obliged – to act. That problem will only become more acute when ministers Hammond and Gauke are exiled to the backbenches, either via the resignations mooted in this morning’s papers or their sacking in next week’s reshuffle.

There’s another problem for Johnson too: Labour MPs. With the predictable exception of Kate Hoey, none of those who have recently come out for a no-deal exit as a last resort voted with the government yesterday. While they would take no-deal over no Brexit, they won’t licence leaving without an agreement unless they absolutely have to. Those prepared to bail Johnson out are vastly outnumbered by those who want to stop him.

Yet the path to no-deal isn’t entirely closed. Rebelling to give yourself time to think about how to prevent no-deal is one thing, but it is still unclear how many Conservatives would sooner make amends with a no-deal exit, as Amber Rudd has, than take the much more painful political action required to actually prevent it. The next prime minister will retain control of the Commons agenda and with it the power to restrain the choice before MPs to the most difficult one imaginable: do you want to destroy your own government or not?

But with an activist Speaker in John Bercow, a newly radicalised bloc of backbench dissenters and a working majority set to be reduced to three after next month’s Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, neither the keys to the order paper nor the gravity of a confidence motion will offer failsafe protection for Johnson. In all likelihood he will find himself in the same place Theresa May pretended to be in when she called the 2017 election: trapped in the jaws of a parliament determined to thwart his Brexit policy. All roads ultimately lead to the confrontation with the electorate he has promised to avoid.

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