The Remainers are celebrating after last tonight’s defeat of the government and writing Boris off as a busted flush. ‘Johnson’s Brexit strategy in ruins as anti-no deal MPs inflict defeat,’ says the headline on this morning’s FT. But I’m not convinced this was such a bad night for the Prime Minister.
Boris’s response to yesterday’s loss has been to table a motion calling for a general election. Corbyn’s position, as I understand it, is that he will only agree to an election after the ‘anti-no deal bill’ forcing Boris to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline on 19 October has been approved by both Houses of Parliament. (Boris refers to it as ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s surrender bill’.) Assuming the bill isn’t ‘talked out’ in the Lords, and assuming Boris doesn’t advise the Queen to withhold her assent, that would effectively prevent Boris from setting an election date after 31 October. Until now, Downing Street has maintained that if the government was defeated by a vote of no confidence, the PM would not resign, but sit on his hands for the 14-day period stipulated in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, at which point a general election would automatically be triggered. He would then set the date of the election for after 31 October, so the UK would leave the European Union by default during the campaign.
If the extension bill becomes law, by contrast, Boris cannot pursue that strategy. Even if he set the date of the election after 31 October, he would still have to ask for an extension on 19 October in his capacity as caretaker Prime Minister and the election would take place before we’ve left.
So Corbyn’s reasoning is that if he makes his support of a general election conditional on the bill becoming law, Boris will have no choice but to set the date of the election before 31 October. Assuming it plays out as expected, an election will still take place, but in mid-October – 15 October is the likely date – rather than after we’ve left. It will effectively be a second referendum on Brexit. Provided the Conservatives win that contest, the passing of the extension bill won’t tie Boris’s hands because he can use his majority to repeal the new law before it compels him to ask for an extension on 19 October. He can go then go to the European Council meeting on 17 October and credibly threaten no deal if there’s still no renegotiation and take Britain out on 31 October whether he gets a new deal or not. (To read more, click here.)