LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – Boris Johnson looked set to try for an election, after Parliament blocked his plan on Tuesday (Oct 22) to rush the Brexit deal into law.
A day of threats and promises from Johnson ended with an official in his office warning that if the European Union agreed to a request from the British Parliament that Brexit be delayed until Jan 31, then the prime minister would call an election instead.
As European Council President Donald Tusk had earlier signalled that this was what the EU was likely to do, Johnson is likely to put passing his Brexit deal – something he discovered on Tuesday evening that he has the votes to do – on hold in favour of trying to secure a parliamentary majority.
His gamble will be that voters give him one, attracted by his pitch of getting Britain out of the EU with the deal he’s negotiated. The risk is that the polls that put him well ahead prove unreliable, as they have done in the past, and that voters opt instead for the opposition Labour Party’s offer of a softer Brexit, confirmed by a second referendum.
That could put the entire Brexit project in jeopardy.
One risk that has receded is that of a no-deal Brexit, as Johnson is now committed to a deal, and the EU seems likely to allow the time to either pass the deal or have an election.
“One way or another, we will leave the EU with this deal, to which this House has just given its assent,” the prime minister told Parliament.
Johnson isn’t certain to go for an election. He threatened one earlier on Tuesday, if Parliament didn’t agree to rush his Brexit bill through, and later in the evening an official repeated the threat.
But Johnson has gone back on such promises before. He said last month he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than apply for a Brexit extension, and unidentified officials in his office had briefed journalists there were ways around the law that required him to do so.
Last Saturday evening (Oct 19), he requested an extension. Nor is it certain Parliament would agree to give him one. He was twice refused last month. But people familiar with Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s thinking said he’d support one if Brexit was put of until Jan 31, removing the risk of an accidental no-deal.
Tuesday afternoon began with Johnson’s election threat. It was offered as a threat to members of Parliament who wanted more time to scrutinise his Brexit legislation.
As the afternoon went on, it looked like it might be working. The first vote of the evening saw Parliament back Johnson’s Brexit deal in principle, and not by a narrow margin, but convincingly, 329 votes to 299.
That was the first time Parliament had approved any Brexit deal, and it suggested that there is a way to get the deal through. But Johnson didn’t just want to pass his deal, he wanted to push it through at a breakneck pace, before the current Oct 31 deadline.
That meant getting the House of Commons to agree to pass it through all its stages in just three days. Johnson’s opponents argued that they needed more time to scrutinize the deal, and voted 322 to 308 against Johnson’s proposed timetable. That defeat made it certain Johnson would need to delay Brexit, something he’s promised repeatedly not to do.
Labour’s Corbyn offered to work with Johnson to come up with a better timetable to help Parliament improve the deal.
Johnson himself seemed more emollient than earlier, not raising his election threat again. “Let me be clear: our policy remains that we should not delay, that we should leave the EU on Oct 31 and that is what I will say to the EU and I will report back to the House,” he told the House of Commons.
Tusk then responded by saying he’d recommend the EU accept Britain’s request for an extension. While he didn’t set a date, his suggestion that this could be agreed by letter, and without a summit, pointed to accepting the British Parliament’s request of a new exit date of Jan 31.
It’s possible the EU will offer to allow an earlier exit if Johnson can get his deal passed in the next month, something that seems plausible after the first vote of the evening. That might persuade Johnson to get his deal passed before going for an election.
Earlier, when MPs had voted to endorse the broad thrust of Johnson’s deal, the winning margin included 19 members of the main opposition Labour Party. Crucially, Johnson won that vote without the Democratic Unionist Party, his former allies, whose support he lost after he broke a commitment to them not to create a customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland.
If Johnson can keep those 19 Labour MPs on board, he can pass his deal. Labour’s Lisa Nandy, one of the 19, warned Johnson that their support shouldn’t be taken for granted. “Those of us who are seeking to engage in the detail do so not because we will support a Tory Brexit – our votes at Third Reading are by no means secure – but because we want to see if we can improve the deal and keep people’s trust in our democracy.”
The government is making promises to secure their support, and that of former Tories who have their doubts about Johnson. Minutes before the votes, MPs were assured they’d get a say on whether the government extended its post-Brexit transition period if it hadn’t concluded a trade deal with the EU by the end of next year. Some had feared another no-deal cliff edge.
If Johnson does go for an an election and wins a majority, those promises may be dropped. Or he could use that majority to soften his Brexit position.