How a leaked briefing suggests No 10 is not yet nearing a reckless no-deal Brexit

In advance of a general election, Downing Street hopes that the opposition parties’ divisions will matter more than Johnson's failure to deliver Brexit by 31 October. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Let's go round again: opposition parties are at odds over their plan to avert a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. The beef? Whether Jeremy Corbyn leads an emergency government of national unity in the event that Boris Johnson is forced from office.

After a testy summit of rebel alliance leaders broke down without agreement yesterday, Labour and the Liberal Democrats rushed to blame one another. Senior Labour figures accuse Jo Swinson of being irresponsible in refusing to back Corbyn, while Swinson claims to be astonished that they won't countenance another candidate.

That you probably aren't astonished to read that exact sentence for the umpteenth time attests to the fact that this plan is going nowhere. It barely bears repeating at this point, but there is no political incentive for the Liberal Democrats – or, for that matter, the 21 former Tory independents – to make Corbyn prime minister, even for five minutes. And the Labour leadership is never going to concede that those who say Corbyn is unfit for office have a point. The numbers aren't there, and even if they were, the political will wouldn't be.

Yet one of the sharpest ironies about this noisy row is the fact that it has almost certainly been resolved: there is no need for an interim prime minister to stop a no-deal Brexit at the end of the month because the actual Prime Minister will do it for them. That's the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from a lengthy, bilious Downing Street briefing reproduced in full by the Spectator's James Forsyth last night, in which someone widely assumed to be Dominic Cummings predicts the imminent collapse of negotiations with the EU, declares Johnson's deal dead, and makes clear that friendly members of the EU27 will be leaned on to oppose an extension.

But what it doesn't say is that the government will ignore the law – as was made clear in court in Edinburgh last week. Far from setting out a fail-safe plan to stop an extension happening, it really just lays out how Downing Street will seek to blame a parliament "as popular as the clap" and "hostile" EU governments in the inevitable event that it is compelled to seek one. "We'll either leave with no deal on 31 October or there will be an election and then we will leave with no deal," is the conclusion.

So much for do or die. Those almost certainly aren't the words of a Downing Street operation that is on the brink of doing something reckless on 31 October, but one looking to cushion its landing on 1 November. That the opposition parties are fighting like ferrets in a sack is all the consolation they need that, come that general election, Johnson's failure to fulfil the one pledge he was elected to fulfil will matter less than the failure of Remain voters to consolidate around a single party.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.