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23 October 2019

A December election is looking more likely

Merry Christmas!

By Patrick Maguire

Whatever happened to do or die? EU diplomats will meet to consider Boris Johnson’s request for a further three-month delay to Brexit today, after MPs voted against allowing the Prime Minister to ram his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the Commons in just three days.

Though 329 MPs did vote to give Johnson’s Brexit legislation its second reading – an indication that they more or less agreed with the broad thrust of the bill – their decision to block the tight timetable he proposed scuppered any chance the government might have thought it still had of getting the deal through Parliament by 31 October. Johnson has now effectively admitted that Brexit won’t happen by that deadline – which has only really taken on the quasi-religious significance it has because of how much he banged on about meeting it by any means necessary.

Instead, as the Prime Minister told MPs after the votes last night, Johnson has taken his ball, paused the legislation, and gone home until the EU respond to his – sorry, Parliament’s – request for the delay he said he could and would never countenance. Though there is already much performative huffing and puffing from Emmanuel Macron, the overwhelming likelihood is that the EU27 offers the extension that the Benn Act demanded Johnson ask for and stipulates he must accept: three months, with the option to leave sooner if a deal is ratified.

A shorter delay solely for the purposes of getting the legislation over the line might be possible, but, if not, then we are heading for an election before Christmas. That’s what Downing Street is briefing, it’s what Cabinet ministers have been saying on the airwaves this morning, and it’s what the leaderships of all the big opposition parties want. No-deal has been (temporarily) taken off the table, so their shared pretext for blocking an election has evaporated.
But they can’t all win. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both believe that last night’s votes provide them with a dynamite pitch to the electorate. Johnson will say: “Jeremy Corbyn just blocked the Brexit MPs voted for. What were all that about? I can make this stop, you know.” Jo Swinson will say: “Jeremy Corbyn just bailed out Boris Johnson and Brexit is only happening because of Labour votes. Isn’t that awful?” (Not that Jeremy Corbyn has ever had much meaningful influence over what John Mann or many of the other 19 Labour MPs who backed the bill yesterday do, but the distinction doesn’t matter on a leaflet.)

As for Labour? That Corbyn has no clear answer is why many MPs, and Remainers in the shadow cabinet, are intensely uneasy about licencing an election before Brexit is resolved – preferably via a second referendum. Though that isn’t going to happen, their anxiety about heading to the country so quickly is shared – for rather different reasons – with Conservative MPs wary about the logistics of a winter campaign, particularly in Scotland (though, where Dom’s going, he won’t need Scottish MPs). And privately, lots of ministers would prefer to go to the polls in spring.

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Remember that MPs, not Johnson, will have the final say on whether an election can happen: be that through a two-thirds majority vote under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, or a one-line bill that would require only a simple majority but could be amended to death by opposition MPs seeking to amend or extend the franchise to let 16-year-olds and EU nationals vote, change the date, or impose any other condition they liked.

But, if what some in the EU believe should be the final, final extension is only in place until the end of January, then there is unlikely to be time for anything else – regardless of how miserable the process or brutal the result is for MPs. Even those who don’t want it now concede that a December election is looking increasingly inevitable. Merry Christmas!