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23 October 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:19am

Will Boris Johnson go for an election or bring back his deal?

Jeremy Corbyn has offered the PM a way forward: but Downing Street is split over whether to accept it

By Ailbhe Rea

Following last night’s rejection of the Prime Minister’s plan to fast-track his deal through parliament, there is really only one question: is Boris Johnson going to call for an election, or will he bring his deal back to parliament with a different timetable?

It all depends on the government’s underlying strategy. Do they want the achievement of passing a deal through parliament, even if that means going beyond 31 October? Or will they use last night’s defeat as an excuse to fight the “people versus parliament” election they have long been preparing for? Do they focus on getting Brexit done, or do they, ironically, call an election begging the country to let them get Brexit done?

It seems like the government doesn’t even know which it prefers. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn met this morning to discuss the possibility of a new timetable, and nothing was agreed. When the Labour chief whip, Nick Brown, offered to agree a new programme motion by the end of the day, Johnson’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, is reported to have made it clear they are going for an election, while Johnson himself was more equivocal. Behind the scenes in Downing Street, there are huge divisions over the way forward: cabinet ministers like Julian Smith want to agree a new timetable and push forward with getting the deal through parliament, while Cummings and Vote Leave veterans think the time for an election is now.

It seems strange that Johnson would not keep trying to push the deal through parliament: his hands are not really tied at this point, and it seems like a gamble to try to play that card with the public, when many voters will be aware that he simply could have tabled a more reasonable timetable. Equally, the fact that the EU will most likely grant an extension doesn’t seem in itself to be enough of a basis to say he is being “thwarted”: even with the extension, he could continue to push his deal through parliament.  

Why wouldn’t Boris Johnson wait to see if he will really be “thwarted”, either through the passing of amendments (like a Customs Union) that would make his deal unpalatable, or by a genuine defeat of his deal? 

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The answer may well be that the government already suspects that support for his deal will crumble under further scrutiny, and that it is in their favour to go for an election where the question is “Brexit? Yay or nay?”, rather than one where the specific kind of Brexit is under scrutiny.

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Corbyn, meanwhile, is in the slightly absurd situation of offering to facilitate further debate of Johnson’s deal, less than 24 hours after whipping his MPs to vote down exactly that. It hasn’t been a popular move: it looks to the party’s Remainer base, and to eager critics like the Liberal Democrats, like Corbyn is throwing Johnson a lifeline. It seems, however, to have been an attempt by Corbyn to call exactly the bluff discussed above: a reminder to the public that when the EU inevitably grants the UK an extension, if Johnson does call for an election, he didn’t really have to.