One thing at least seems certain: Britain’s voters are heading back to the polls for the fourth time in four years. After two elections and a referendum, a third election is going to be called this autumn. What isn’t so clear is when it will be, or when it should be. The Prime Minister, who as recently as the beginning of this week said he absolutely didn’t want an election, now says it should be held as soon as possible. And the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who for months has been demanding an election at the earliest possible moment, is now trying to get it delayed. This is just the latest example of how the Brexit issue is turning politics topsy-turvy. So do we need an election and when should it be?
It’s the view of many people that, irrespective of what he may publicly have claimed, Boris Johnson has wanted to call an election ever since he became prime minister in July. And it’s not hard to see why he would have done. In the first place, he inherited the job with barely a majority in the House of Commons and one certainly insufficient to allow him to govern at will until the next scheduled election in 2022. But much more urgently he needed to find a way to honour his self-imposed commitment to get Britain out of the European Union by 31 October ‘do or die’ but in the teeth of opposition from the current House of Commons which for two years has failed to agree any course of action that would deliver what the public voted for in the referendum of 2016.
His pitch during the Conservative leadership election in the early summer was clear. He would succeed in negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU acceptable to a majority of MPs and he’d do this by convincing his European partners that he was perfectly prepared to lead Britain out without a deal if they didn’t talk turkey. The threat would make them buckle: a deal would be struck, Britain would be out by the deadline he had set and would do so without having to endure the uncertainties and upheavals leaving without a deal would entail, and he would emerge the hero of the hour. But for it to work, he had to persuade everyone he was deadly serious about being more than ready to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October without a deal.
This remains the Prime Minister’s policy, at least officially. But few think it’s what he’s really up to. Why, they ask, should anyone believe that Mr Johnson could secure such a deal when the EU has repeatedly said that the one they agreed with Theresa May is not up for renegotiation? Why should anyone believe he’s serious anyway about negotiating a deal when, despite being invited by the German Chancellor and the French president last month to submit proposed changes (on the key issue of the Irish backstop) within thirty days, nothing was put forward until late this week, and then for those proposals to be described as ‘disastrous and exasperating’ by EU diplomats? Wasn’t it becoming increasingly clear that, instead of seriously trying to negotiate a deal (because he knew he couldn’t get one), the Prime Minister was really intent on taking Britain out of the EU without a deal at the end of October?
That is what the majority of MPs, opposed to a no-deal Brexit, concluded when they returned to Westminster this week. So a ‘Rebel Alliance’ of opposition MPs and Tory backbenchers, determined to stop no-deal, duly conspired to push through a bill, against his wishes, in effect preventing him from doing it. In response to this defeat, Mr Johnson announced that he wanted to call an election.
This is where we had got to on Wednesday. On the face of it, this chain of events, involving the first occasion in over a century that a rookie prime minister had been defeated in parliament on his first vote, would appear to be a catalogue of incompetence, naïveté and humiliation. But some see it all quite differently, as the playing out of a deliberate cunning strategy cooked up and ruthlessly pursued by Mr Johnson’s chief advisor and strategist, Dominic Cummings.
What Mr Cummings was seeking to bring about, these conspiracy theorists claim, was the double goal of making sure Britain did leave the EU at the end of October, as promised, but also of engineering an election the Prime Minister could claim he didn’t want, but which had been forced upon him by ‘undemocratic’ MPs and in which he could pose as the champion of the people and defender of their decision in the referendum against a political elite in Westminster who were doing everything they could to thwart them. Such an election, the thinking went, offered the Prime Minister his best hope of securing the workable majority he needs to stay in office.
But if that was indeed the cunning strategy (and of course the sequence of events could be read quite differently), it came unstuck on Wednesday evening. That’s because the opposition parties didn’t play according to the script. They were supposed to leap at the chance of an election because, of course, oppositions always want elections and never turn down the chance to turf a government out. But in this case they didn’t. They sat on their hands.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act brought in by the coalition government in 2011, the old prerogative of prime ministers to call an election whenever they wanted, was ended. Elections could now be called before the five years of a parliament were up only if a government were defeated in a confidence vote and no new government could be put together within a fortnight from the existing House of Commons; or if two-thirds of MPs voted for one. On Wednesday night, Mr Johnson could muster only 298 of the 434 votes needed for an election to be called.
What stopped the Labour Party and other opposition MPs from behaving as they were expected to do was that they didn’t trust Boris Johnson. They feared that if they granted the Prime Minister there and then the election he wanted, he might act to prevent their bill essentially preventing a no-deal Brexit on 31 October from becoming law. Their priority is to make sure it does.
Mr Johnson reacted to this setback (if setback it is – there are, of course, those who think it was all plotted, move by move, by Mr Cummings with military precision) by accusing the Labour leader of being ‘chicken’ and other opposition leaders of being frit. But he was forced to ease the path of the Rebel Alliance’s bill (which he had dubbed Corbyn’s ‘surrender bill’) and ensure it will get royal assent in order to become law before Parliament is prorogued next week. With that possible source of mistrust out of the way, the government is going to have a second go at calling an election next Monday.
But will opposition MPs play ball at this second attempt? The Prime Minister wants the election on 15 October, two days before the next EU Council meeting at which he hopes (or claims he hopes) to secure a Brexit deal. But although Jeremy Corbyn said he would agree to an election once the legislation to stop no-deal had been passed, many of his colleagues see a further trap. They point out that if they were to acquiesce in Mr Johnson’s wish to have the election on 15 October and the Prime Minister were to win the election, then he could repeal the ‘Surrender Act’ and Britain might end up leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October after all. They argue that Labour and other opposition parties must withhold agreement to an election until Britain has safely passed that date and not left the EU without a deal. Then there could be an election sometime in November.
This is what is going to occupy MPs on Monday. The Prime Minister may try to get round the need for two-thirds of MPs to back an election by by-passing the FTPA with a single sentence bill calling for an election on a specific date. Such a bill would require only a simple majority to pass. But this route has its own problems. The bill would be amendable (for example regarding the date of the election) and would have to go through the Lords. There may simply be no time for it all to happen because of the Prime Minister’s earlier decision to prorogue Parliament by next Thursday.
Meanwhile, whether these extraordinary events are the playing out of a carefully pre-planned strategy, or simply a humiliating series of cock-ups, the Prime Minister has paid a huge price. By attempting to cower his own rebellious backbenchers into opposing the no-deal bill by threatening the removal of the whip if they disobeyed him, he not only failed to browbeat them but as a result saw his majority cut from one to minus forty-three. In the process he banished from the party some of its most distinguished and long-standing MPs, including two former chancellors and one of his rivals for the leadership, banning them from standing in any future election. Even some of the Prime Minister’s own supporters think this was a step too far, risking the very future of the Conservative Party as a broad-church, centre-right party that could still be home to Tories who agreed on everything else except Brexit.
That Mr Johnson was playing with dynamite became all too evident on Thursday when his own brother, Jo Johnson, resigned as a minister and announced he would be retiring from the Commons because of ‘unresolvable tension’ between ‘family loyalties and the national interest’ – declaring, in short, that his brother’s policies and behaviour as leader of the Tory Party were against the national interest. The shock of this turn of events and the turmoil of the previous few days clearly disoriented the Prime Minister who, usually an accomplished public speaker, gave what was universally described as a rambling and incoherent speech on Thursday that had been billed as the first of the election campaign.
Whether the events of the week are as chaotic and damaging as they appear, or just the playing out of a pre-conceived strategy, much of the anger within the Conservative Party at the turn of events has been directed at the Prime Minister’s adviser, Dominic Cummings. One otherwise loyal backbencher, Sir Roger Gale, described him as ‘an unelected, foul-mouthed oaf’ who should be frogmarched out of Downing Street. Others accused Mr Cummings of ‘running’ the Prime Minister, and Sir John Major, a former Tory prime minister, warned that over-reliance on advisers who get too big for their boots always ends in disaster.
Next week will see a resumption of hostilities. Opposition MPs will have to decide whether or not to grant the Prime Minister the election he wants and whether it should be on the date he craves or only after Britain has passed the 31 October deadline without having left the EU without a deal. The temptation will be strong to let the Prime Minister ‘stew in his own juice’, as one put it. Or as another said, if it’s ‘do or die’, let him die.
What’s your view as to what should happen? Do we need an election? If so should it be on 15 October as the Prime Minister wants or after 31 October? If Britain fails to leave the EU on 31 October because no deal has been struck, do you think that would be a betrayal or a lucky escape? What do you make of Boris Johnson’s debut as prime minister: does it seem chaotic and damaging, or do you think there is method behind the apparent madness? What do you make of Dominic Cummings’ role? And have the events of the last week made you more or less inclined to vote Conservative in the election that is surely coming?
Let us know what you think.