Boris Johnson will table a motion calling an election on 12 December – but he requires the support of the Labour leadership or other opposition parties to secure the required two-thirds support to trigger an election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
While Jeremy Corbyn was privately worried that blocking an election in September would make him look ridiculous – as one person familiar with his thinking fretted at the time, “We’re the fucking opposition, we want an election” – he was persuaded by the argument that an early election could allow Boris Johnson to seek a no deal Brexit by the back door.
But many at the top of Labour are now of the view that delaying the election has played badly for Labour and exacerbated its Brexit woes. Some believe that Johnson’s decision to seek a Brexit deal by putting a regulatory border in the Irish Sea means that he will never seek a no deal in reality.
In private, a majority of Labour MPs fear an election while Brexit is unresolved will see them lose votes to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and the Brexit party and will cause them to shed seats to the Conservatives. But concern about an election is nowhere near as high as it was in 2017, when ultimately all but 20 Labour MPs voted to bring about an early contest. That dynamic will undoubtedly play out again if Corbyn decides to whip for an election. One Corbynsceptic MP quipped that the party would end up like the “US-style death cult: everyone dies but the leader” and would certainly vote for an election.
In private, the Labour leadership know that it may be harmful to be in a different position to the Liberal Democrats and SNP on the issue, and have no wish to be the handmaiden of an accidental no deal. The SNP are determined to go to the country sooner rather than later – they are riding high in the polls, and while some in the party think that Unionist hopes that Alex Salmond’s trial will derail them are “clutching at straws”, in the words of one, others take the view that it is better safe than sorry.
But the Liberal Democrats, like Labour, are worried that to go to the country in the wrong circumstances will trigger a no deal by mistake, though they know there is a potentially large prize on offer if they can force an election while Brexit is still up for grabs. One Labour MP, who is intimately familiar with the workings of the Commons having served as its leader, explained to me that the risk of a 12 December election is that Parliament will not resume sitting until mid-January, leaving the risk of a no deal Brexit by accident on 31 January up in the air. That was the argument that ultimately persuaded Jeremy Corbyn not to go for an election in September and it may once again stay his hand.
In the end, it may be the EU who force the issue: for an election to happen, they will likely need to offer a Brexit extension beyond 31 January 2020. And the biggest barrier to that is the main opponent of a long Brexit extension: French President Emmanuel Macron.