Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act of 2011, the House of Commons must vote by a two-thirds majority to approve an early election. It was nowhere near it, with only 293 of the 650 MPs – almost all Conservatives or Democratic Unionists – in favor. Most of the opposition abstained, although the Liberal Democrats and a few others voted against.
Parliament has now been prorogued and barring some extraordinary development will not sit again until 14 October. That’s only five days before the deadline set in the act passed last week, against the government’s opposition, by which a withdrawal agreement must be approved. Otherwise the government will be obliged to request from the European Union a three-month extension to the 31 October withdrawal date.
Johnson has said both that he will obey the law and that he will not request an extension. His call for an early election was one attempt to evade that apparent contradiction.
The fear that Johnson may have other tricks up his sleeve is one reason why the opposition refused to support his call. They want to be sure that parliament is still sitting in the last fortnight of
July October: then if by some subterfuge the government manages to evade the legislation and set course for a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, the Commons can remove it by a vote of no confidence.
Equally importantly, they need to be in a position to formulate an alternative strategy if the EU should turn down the extension, or put troublesome conditions on it.
But there is also a political motive. A 15 October poll would have allowed Johnson to present himself as the champion of Brexit, stemming the flow of Conservative votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. If an extension has already been granted before the election, however, that unity will be harder to secure.
As Guy Rundle says in Crikey today, “Labour want [Johnson] to twist in the wind.” And if he has actually been voted out of office by parliament, and the election is held under a caretaker Labour government, the embarrassment will be even greater.
Two critical (and related) developments in the last couple of weeks provide the background to all this. One is that the revolt in the Conservative Party proved much more widespread than Johnson (or most others) expected – 21 Tories crossed the floor last week to vote for the Benn-Burt bill. Johnson’s hardball tactics against the rebels backfired dramatically.
The second thing is that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has started behaving less like a narrow sectarian and more like a leader genuinely seeking consensus. The third parties and rebel Conservatives who would once have been horrified at the thought of making him prime minister, even for a few weeks, have been soothed into tolerating the idea.
So when parliament resumes next month, one of two things will probably happen. Either the extension will be safely secured and parliament will then grant Johnson his election for late November; or a vote of no confidence will be passed and Corbyn will take office as a caretaker prime minister, to secure the extension and then go to the polls.*
There is a third possibility: given the way Johnson has united the disparate strands of the opposition against him, Corbyn may be able to assemble a government that could maintain itself in office not just for a few weeks but for several months, enough to negotiate some sort of new agreement with the EU and then put it to a referendum.
That’s still very unlikely, but it’s a tribute to Johnson’s ineptitude that he’s elevated it even to the realm of possibility.
* Could Johnson then play the same trick and deny Corbyn an election? No, because although Corbyn would not have a two-thirds majority, he would have the simple majority necessary to amend or repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Johnson’s problem is that he doesn’t have a majority at all.