General election: Boris Johnson reveals ‘plan B’ to force pre-Christmas poll if he loses Commons vote

No 10 explores bringing forward a bill – allowing a poll with a simple majority in Commons – despite dismissing identical Lib Dem-SNP plan as ‘gimmick’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 27 October 2019 17:10
Culture secretary Nicky Morgan says SNP and Lib Dem general election a 'stunt'

The chances of a pre-Christmas general election are rising after Boris Johnson revealed a “plan B” to send the UK to the polls, if he suffers his expected defeat in the Commons on Monday.

For the first time, Downing Street said it is ready to explore “all options” – including new legislation – to persuade MPs to back a snap ballot, even if that means abandoning its own Brexit deal.

The shift came after the dramatic move by the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party to back an early election, provided the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is shelved and the threat of a no-deal Brexit removed.

Ministers rejected the Lib Dem-SNP proposal, a bill to trigger an election on 9 December, as a “gimmick”, but Downing Street later revealed it was warming to the idea of its own legislation.

“We will look at all options to get Brexit done, including ideas similar to that proposed by other opposition parties,” a No 10 source said.

Unlike Monday’s apparently doomed attempt to overturn the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a bill would require only a simple majority in the Commons – not the support of two-thirds of MPs.

The prime minister had rejected putting forward a bill for fear of wrecking amendments, including an expected push to give the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds.

But the Lib Dems and SNP have now pledged to reject any amendments. “We need to pass this as it is drafted,” said Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader. “We do need to resolve this issue.”

Moving straight to an election could yet run into opposition in the cabinet, where some ministers want to bring back the withdrawal bill and give parliament the proper scrutiny it is demanding.

Nevertheless, the developments left Labour isolated in holding out against an early election – which Tony Blair and many others fear will end in a crash-out Brexit at the end of 2020.

MPs will be locked in a race against time to pass a bill for a 9 December election – three days earlier than Mr Johnson has proposed – because it would need royal assent by 31 October.

The latest Brexit dramas also saw:

* Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, call for the UK to stay in the EU customs union – increasing the chances of the bill being sabotaged, if it is brought back.

* The Lib Dems face Labour accusations of having “given up” on a Final Say referendum – after Chuka Umunna said it was now “quite clear” the Commons would not vote for it.

* Mr Blair suggest a simultaneous general election and a second referendum, saying: “You can deal with them both on the same day if you want.”

* Labour’s Diane Abbott suggest it would accept a no-deal Brexit was off the table if Mr Johnson would “categorically give parliament an undertaking” – despite repeatedly dismissing him as a liar.

All the opposition parties, except the Democratic Unionist Party, are still poised to inflict defeat on the government’s attempt to overturn the fixed-term parliaments on Monday.

Mr Johnson had threatened to bring back the vote every day – something John Bercow was unlikely to allow anyway – but switched tack after the Lib Dem-SNP proposal changed the debate.

The No 10 source said: “We can’t allow parliament to waste 2020 the way it has wasted 2019 – the country wants Brexit done so we can move on and focus the public’s priorities.

“Tomorrow MPs will vote on an election on 12 December so we can get a new parliament.

“If Labour oppose being held to account by the people yet again, then we will look at all options to get Brexit done including ideas similar to that proposed by other opposition parties.”

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