On Friday I was on television and said pretty unequivocally that parliament would not grant Johnson an election. He doesn’t have the super-majority required by the Fixed Term Parliament Act. However, I made a rather basic oversight. The UK is not a two-party system, even if two parties dominate it. Over the weekend the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party showed how disruptive they can be by purposing a bill that would allow a simple majority to amend the FTPA to allow an election on 9 December. This would give Johnson his election, but without the ability to pass his Brexit deal into legislation and would require at a minimum a three-month extension from the European Union. This intervention was met with a mixed reception from government and opposition, from Leavers and Remainers.
Many in the remain camp saw this as a betrayal of the campaign for a People’s Vote, which the LibDems and SNP had been backing; an election might kill the prospects of ever having a second referendum. It also appears to violate the guiding principle of the opposition: don’t give Boris Johnson what he wants.
However, it is easy to see why these were not impediments to the decision to bring this bill forward. Regarding the second referendum, it has been amended to various bills multiple times and has never passed. It is not an unreasonable conclusion that its chances of passing this parliament are minimal. It may be better to fight an election that could produce more sympathetic parliament.
But doesn’t this play into the plans of Johnson and his 4-D chess instructor, Dominic Cummings? Given its lukewarm reception this move has rather disorientated the government. James Cleverly did the rounds on weekend television and dismissed the bill as a ‘gimmick’. It seems like the government won’t agree to an election, though there are vacillating noises coming from Gavin Williamson. If the government rejects the bill, then it is clear that its authors are not violating the cardinal rule of anti-Johnson opposition. Indeed, it shows that for all of Johnson’s bluster and braggadocio, he does not want an election on his Brexit deal. He wants to get it through parliament with minimal scrutiny and then have an election. An election will expose his Brexit deal to scrutiny that could kill it. He will have to answer awkward questions about the customs border in the Irish Sea, the rights of EU citizens, and worker’s rights. Most importantly, he will be challenged on the risk of a ‘trap-door’ no deal occurring in mid-2020. If you are trying to sell a lemon, you don’t want the sucker to look under the hood. An election before the deal passes would do just that.
So far, the opponents of Brexit have been fighting tactically, delaying or disrupting government plans, but without a coherent long-term strategy beyond keeping themselves in the game. The LibDem-SNP bill is a strategic decision, but it is one laden with risk. If accepted, it allows an election to be fought on terms that are not as favourable to Johnson as the polling currently indicates. It allows the opposition to pull apart his Brexit deal in public. The LibDems may take Tory seats in the affluent remain-leaning suburbs of England, while the SNP pushes them out of Scotland. If Johnson cannot bring over a good chunk of Labour-voting but Brexit-supporting seats in the North, then his path to government becomes difficult. An election gives a fighting chance for a new government to bring forward a second referendum. If rejected, it shows that LibDems and SNP are trying to break the Brexit impasse while the government and Labour dither. It is especially embarrassing for the government because it shows the shallowness of their commitment to an election. It proves once more that you cannot trust the word of Boris Johnson.
Yet, it is not without risk. If could be that Johnson rallies the Brexiters and scoops up 45% of the vote on election day. With the opposition vote divided between Labour, LibDems, Greens, Plaid and the SNP, this would certainly lead to a healthy majority for the Tories and this isn’t David Cameron’s Conservative Party; it would be the Brexit Party in all but name. There would be no second referendum, no close alignment with the EU, and a strong chance that we will drop through the trap door in July 2020.