The declaration this afternoon from the opposition parties that they won’t back an election on Monday and are now unlikely to back one before 31st October is a significant step. It doesn’t change the fact we are heading for an election, but it could change the context in which that election takes place.
The political calculation is clearly designed to maximise the electoral damage the Brexit Party can inflict on the Conservatives in the event Boris is forced to request an extension, as he will now be required to do by law should he remain Prime Minister. This risks opening the opposition parties up to criticism of running scared from an election but they appear prepared to take this on the chin, at least for the moment.
If they stand firm on this, the government may try to find a route to an election that only requires a simple majority, such as a simple Bill or the humiliating step of calling a Vote of No Confidence in itself. However, even finding a simple majority now looks unlikely for this government following this week’s purge of the anti-no deal rebels.
This leaves the Prime Minister three options (discounting the unlikely event of him negotiating and passing a deal) all of which appear deeply unpalatable.
- Bite the bullet and request the extension while making it very clear his hands are being tied by Parliament. This could play to his parliament vs the people narrative but leaves him massively exposed to the Brexit Party when a poll is eventually called.
- Resign as Prime Minister and let Jeremy Corbyn form a minority government that requests the extension (Corbyn wouldn’t have the backing to anything else). This still exposes him to the Brexit Party as he will have essentially ceded control of the process voluntarily, but he will be able to categorically paint Labour as an anti-Brexit Party.
- Refuse to obey the law.
This appears to leave the Prime Minister snookered over the timings of the election. His gamble that the opposition parties would bite his hand off for an election looks to have backfired. But this doesn’t change the basic battle lines of the election. Johnson will present himself as the only option to deliver Brexit while casting his opponents as anti-Brexit remainers.
A later election presents a more difficult challenge for the Prime Minister but his message to electorate will remain unchanged: I am the only true Brexit candidate. The outcome rests on whether this message resonates with the electorate.