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3 September 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 8:57am

Does Labour really want a general election?

By Ailbhe Rea

If rebels succeed today and tomorrow in passing legislation to force the Prime Minister to seek a Brexit extension, Boris Johnson’s next move will, in all likelihood, be to call an election for 14 October.

There are two ways that Johnson can do this. The first is by getting two thirds of the House of Commons to vote for a motion to call an early election, the second is to pass a short bill setting aside the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in order to hold an election on 14 October. Given the size of Johnson’s majority, there is no way he can achieve that without Labour’s support.

But how does Labour feel about that? Outwardly, most of the noises are positive, with Jeremy Corbyn telling a rally in Salford yesterday: “I will be delighted when the election comes. I’m ready for it, you’re ready for it, we’re ready for it. We’ll take the message out there and above all we will win for the people of this country.”

This was the line decided in Shadow Cabinet yesterday: that the party’s attitude had to be one of ‘bring it on’, after months of saying they want a general election over a second referendum. But the cracks are already appearing, and from two different groups within Labour.

Many Labour MPs whose priority is stopping No Deal have concerns about voting for an election called by Boris Johnson before they have finished passing legislation to prevent no deal. Even if MPs vote with the government to hold an election on 14 October, the date is not legally binding. The choice of polling day is in the gift of the prime minister, who advises the Queen as to which date to proclaim. This means Johnson could, in theory, then schedule an election for after no deal, in another move that would push the bounds of convention without necessarily breaking the law.

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Emily Thornberry is understood to have raised this concern in Shadow Cabinet, while it is reported that dozens of Labour MPs have told whips they won’t vote for an election unless a no-deal Brexit has already been ruled out.

The cracks further showed on Newsnight last night, as Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Tony Lloyd said his party was not “daft enough” to fall for the prime minister’s tactic, which he said was “designed to land us with a no-deal Brexit”.

“We are not going to say to Boris Johnson, yes bring on your election, if the consequence of that is we end up with a no-deal Brexit,” he told the programme. 

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This is the position being repeated this morning by Labour sources, such that it seems highly unlikely the leadership will vote on an early election motion called by the prime minister until no deal legislation has been passed in the Lords and has received royal ascent. That could well mean Labour voting against an election this week.

Separately, and less reported so far, is the deep feeling of unease among Labour MPs in Leave seats about an election before Brexit is delivered. Bearing in mind the results of the European elections, where Labour took home only 14 per cent of the vote nationwide, East Midlands and Yorkshire MPs are particularly nervous, with some believing they are “toast” given the Conservatives’ hard line on Brexit.

As news breaks that Labour and opposition parties have agreed not to vote for an election until after the anti-No Deal legislation is passed, Labour is somehow are still struggling to come out with a single, clear message. Some are briefing that Labour is still prioritising a general election and can stop no deal during an election campaign, using the kind of legal routes Keir Starmer floated at the weekend.

Either way, two things seem true: even if Labour votes down an election this week, it will have to vote in favour of one very soon, and definitely after anti-no deal legislation is passed. And when that happens, Labour will need to find a way to sign from the same hymn sheet on multiple fraught issues during an election campaign.