Brexit deferred again as election looms

So, no Brexit this week. The European Union has granted the extension that parliament forced Boris Johnson to request, with the new deadline for Britain’s departure set at 31 January 2020.

That disposes of the main argument against an immediate election, namely the fear that a “no deal” exit would happen before the new government was in place. But when Johnson moved last night for an early election, the House of Commons again refused to approve. Needing a two-thirds majority, he had only 299 out of 650; 70 voted against and the rest, including most of the opposition Labour Party, abstained.

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn maintains that he is open to approving an election, but demanded first “a clear, definitive decision that no deal is absolutely off the table.”

This makes no sense. Brexit can now no longer happen before 31 January without parliament’s approval. If Johnson loses the election, parliament will not be approving a “no deal” exit, now or later. But if Johnson wins, he will be able to legislate for it anyway if he chooses, regardless of what assurances he might give now.

Politics, of course, is not always the art of the sensible. Voters – and, more importantly, the media who interpret things to them – may not recognise nonsense when they see it, so something that makes no sense may still be good politics in the short term. But although voters dislike early elections, a party that looks as if it’s afraid of one rarely does well out of it.

And in any case, an election is coming soon one way or another. The Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists are keen for a December poll: partly because they hope to benefit at Labour’s expense, but also because, as the strongest anti-Brexiters, they see an election as the best hope of stopping Brexit altogether.

While logically it would make more sense to hold a second referendum before (or even in conjunction with) an election, there is no majority in the current parliament to support one. The “remain” group within Labour seems reluctant to accept that, but the Lib Dems and SNP are ahead of them.

Johnson still can’t get to the two-thirds mark without Labour, but if he reaches agreement with the others then he doesn’t need to. With a simple majority he can put through a short bill to override the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act and set an election date. Such a bill, however, has to go through the House of Lords as well, so it will take a couple of days.

Why is Johnson so keen on an election now? Having won approval of his withdrawal bill last week at the second reading stage, by the reasonably comfortable margin of 329-299, why not push ahead with getting it through parliament, and then go to an election as the man who delivered Brexit against the odds?

Even if he had to accept some of the opposition’s amendments in order to get the bill approved, they could be undone in the new year once he had won a parliamentary majority.

It could be that Johnson and his advisers are simply bad tacticians – that after losing the vote last week on his attempt to guillotine the bill, Johnson spat the dummy rather than calmly considering what was in his best interests. But it seems to me there are two explanations that make sense.

One is that he is not confident of his ability to get Brexit legislation through the present parliament. He may think that, given time to scrutinise the bill properly, opposition to it will solidify – and that accepting amendments won’t help, because any amendment that appeases one group will antagonise others.

The other possibility is that Johnson is worried that disposing of Brexit will remove his biggest campaign issue. In an election where the legislation has already been carried, voters will focus on other matters, which may not show him and his government in as good a light. Instead of “who do you trust to deliver Brexit?”, the question will be “who do you trust to deal with its consequences?”

Underlying both explanations is the thought that time is not on Johnson’s side when it comes to the withdrawal bill. The more time that both MPs and voters have to consider it (whether before or after passage), the more they will find that it falls short of their own particular expectations.

They will also find that it does not really amount to “getting Brexit done” at all, but rather sets the country up to go through much the same argument again in a year’s time. On this thinking, once Johnson had been deprived of the chance for quick passage of the bill, his next best bet was for a quick election, which may, if his luck holds, deliver a foolproof majority.

But an immediate election carries big risks too. Current polling gives the Conservatives a big lead (with the overall pro/anti Brexit division as even as ever), but the scene has the ability to shift very quickly. Having promised to deliver Brexit this week come what may, Johnson will find his credibility dented, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party will be waiting to pounce.

For the voters, being dragged to the polls in the depths of winter in a deeply divided country, it probably won’t be a pleasant experience. But for the spectators it’s going to utterly fascinating.

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