The contradictions and illogicality of Brexit are coming home to roost. Johnson is stuck between a rock and a hard place. His party is split. Parliament is set to render ‘no deal’ unlawful. The EU won’t yield on the backstop. It is necessary not just for Irish peace but for the integrity of the single market. And even if he felt he could go to the EU Summit and fudge a deal, Johnson faces the same parliamentary arithmetic problem that May faced.
Johnson has realised that ‘no deal’ is the only game in town for his survival. Anything else will see the Brexit Party split the Tory vote. His thinking is nothing to do with what is best for the country. It is purely about what is best for Johnson. Anything but ‘no deal’ will mean he is toast at any election. And with his Parliamentary majority in effect now gone with a significant number of Tory MPs supporting cross-party legislation, his only way out is through a general election.
Waiting for the summit to pursue a ‘Brexit deal strategy’ makes no sense for the Johnson government. A Johnson Brexit deal strategy would only work with an increased majority. Without it, a deal could only work if his government could limp on for long enough to see the Brexit Party threat fade. That seems an unlikely scenario.
Running down the clock and crashing out with ‘no deal’ before an election is equally unattractive for him. The chaos that will ensue after October 31 would not easily be forgiven by the electorate and his chances of winning a post-October election would fall dramatically. Johnson would be the one fearing what he has hitherto dismissed as ‘project fear’.
Instead it is likely to be full steam ahead for a ‘no-deal election’. There is speculation this might be timed for after October 31. If he did this, it would be a foolish calculation but would also be outrageous, making a no-deal Brexit a fait accompli and possibly tying the hands of a future government. Such timing would also be likely to prompt successful legal challenge and an extension to the Article 50 deadline.
Instead, his goal will be an election in mid-October, just ahead of the EU Summit and ahead of the damaging chaos that will result from ‘no deal’ itself. Indeed, the sooner the better for a PM whose honeymoon gloss is rapidly wearing thin. Johnson has probably already done a deal with Farage to step down his candidates . We will only find out how dirty this deal is in due course. Farage is likely to have extracted a hefty price to prevent being double-crossed. Johnson’s calculation is that a united leave vote for the Tories will outgun a divided remain vote for the opposition parties.
A principled government would accept that the only way to settle the EU issue should be to allow the electorate to have a final say in a no-deal vs remain referendum. That should also be the approach of the opposition who should insist the Brexit issue be divorced from an election by way of a referendum ahead of any election. Former PM Tony Blair has described any Johnson election move as an “elephant trap” and warned Corbyn not to support it. Lord Heseltine has described the original referendum campaign as a “giant deception” on the electorate. Many feel a leave campaign would not be able to pull the same tricks a second time in a referendum. Instead, Johnson will be hoping another “giant deception” on Europe will win him an election.
But even with a “giant deception” and Corbyn falling for the “elephant trap”, an October election is a high risk gamble for Johnson. Proroguing Parliament has alienated many voters against him. It has also accelerated splits within the Conservative Party. It is already facing a major schism over proroguing that would grow to an irreversible split if the party shifted fully to a ‘no-deal or nothing’ policy. It is not unreasonable to assume their electoral base would also splinter, offsetting at least in part the gain from not having to compete against the Brexit party.
And although Brexit would dominate a ‘no-deal election’, voters wouldn’t overlook the wider issues of jobs, the NHS, climate change, austerity and social care. Add in the fact that when people go to the polls, it is often to give politicians a bloody nose. Just as anti-establishment sentiment in part spurred the leave vote in the referendum so it could rebound on a Johnson-led Tory Party going to the country after nearly a decade of Tory austerity. So although a public vote in the form of a referendum would be undoubtedly be preferable to a general election, those of us who want the UK to stay in the EU may have less to fear from a general election than we think.
By Dominic Byrne, Nottingham People’s Vote campaigner