It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prime minister in possession of a minority government must be in want of an election.
Yesterday, for the third time since he moved into No Ten, Boris Johnson tried to force Jeremy Corbyn’s hand. Under the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act, an election needs the support of two-thirds of MPs. As the arithmetic currently stands, the Prime Minister therefore needs the consent of the opposition.
This time, Johnson tried to embarrass the Labour leader into an election. Pretending to take Corbyn at his word, the Prime Minister said that he would allow the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) to be discussed until 6 November, just so long as the opposition agreed to an election.
In a private meeting between the leaders earlier this week, Corbyn had said that the Labour Party was in favour of the WAB proceeding to committee stage.
But the Prime Minister’s supposed concession was a bluff.
The WAB has been “paused” by the government because it has reached the point at which it can be amended.
This is a dangerous moment for Johnson.
In the absence of DUP support, the WAB has had to rely on Labour rebels to get as far as it has. But their continued assistance is contingent on certain amendments – workers’ rights, environmental standards and possibly even a customs union.
Take, for example, Melanie Onn, MP for Great Grimsby. She voted the WAB through on its second reading. But on Tuesday, an hour before walking through the lobbies with the government, she tweeted: “I have been busy drafting amendments to the Workers’ Rights section of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to get verbal commitments in law.”
If Johnson really wanted to pass his deal, he would leave plenty of time for parliament to discuss its merits. Some members of the cabinet, including Julian Smith, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, still think that he should do so.
But Johnson does not. He worries that the WAB is about to be ambushed by a number of amendments. At which point Johnson would face an unpalatable choice. He could bring Labour rebels onside by acquiescing to their amendments on workers’ rights. But he would then risk the ire of the ERG, for whom the whole point of Brexit is extracting the UK from EU law on precisely such issues.
The accelerated timetable Johnson has suggested is insincere. He does not want the WAB to proceed: he merely wants it to flounder at committee stage for a convenient amount of time.
This would then give Johnson momentum for his people versus parliament election. He could point to the non-progression of the WAB, and repeat ad nauseam the accusation of “dither and delay”.
This, he hopes, would both neutralise the Brexit Party – and do damage to the Labour Party in Leave-voting seats.