Labour MPs have played cynical politics, and may pay a heavy price

Labour MPs are blocking an early election because they think they might lose it and they want to weaken Boris Johnson – but it may not do them any good in the long run

John Rentoul
Saturday 07 September 2019 19:03
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Boris Johnson accuses Jeremy Corbyn of wanting to 'stop the election and stop the people from voting'

Boris Johnson was “blindsided” by Labour’s refusal to support an early election, I am told. If so, he was not the only one.

At the start of this week, Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Blackford of the Scottish National Party, and all the commentators, including me, took it for granted that, if the prime minister asked for an election, Labour MPs would have to vote for it.

It was an iron law of politics – a fairly recent one, but iron-clad. Corbyn surprised everyone in 2017 by saying, within two hours of Theresa May announcing that she wanted an election, that he would vote for it.

The iron law held that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, designed to make it difficult for a prime minister to hold an election before a five-year parliament was up, didn’t work. The opposition would always be too embarrassed, we now thought, to pass up the chance to take its case to the people.

Well, the thing about iron is that it is brittle. The opposition defeated the government on Tuesday to pave the way for a bill to block a no-deal Brexit. Johnson responded by calling for an election, and Corbyn said: “Fine – get the bill through first in order to take no deal off the table.”

After the bill passed the Commons and was sent to the Lords on Wednesday, Corbyn repeated: “Let this bill pass and gain royal assent, and then we will back an election.” So Labour MPs on Thursday abstained in the vote on an early election, denying it the two-thirds majority needed, because the bill was still being delayed in the Lords.

By then, though, the ground had shifted under Corbyn’s feet. He realised that his MPs were overwhelmingly opposed to an early election. They claimed that they didn’t trust Johnson to obey the law, and thought he might change the election date to find a way to take Britain out of the EU without a deal at the end of October, while parliament was dissolved.

You didn’t have to scratch too deep to find that, for many Labour MPs, the real reason they didn’t want an early election was that they thought they would lose it. Thus Johnson would gain a parliamentary majority for leaving with no deal if necessary.

So that was that. Never mind what Corbyn said in parliament, or Blackford (“let us have an election”): by Thursday the early election was off. And if anyone wondered why some Labour MPs thought they might lose an election, all they had to do was to watch Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, on BBC Question Time that night.

She carefully explained to a disbelieving audience that, if a Labour government were elected, Prime Minister Corbyn would negotiate a new Brexit deal with the EU and put it to a referendum, in which she would vote against her own government’s deal.

This is the sort of thing that might sound reasonable in an academic seminar: that a Labour government would offer the people a choice between a soft Brexit or remaining in the EU. In the bear pit of an election campaign, it would mean Labour’s policy would be to leave the EU and to remain. The people would be invited to vote for a Labour government in which the prime minister would be campaigning for Leave while most of his cabinet would be for Remain.

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No wonder Labour doesn’t want an election yet. If it can be put off until December, that would give the party a few more weeks to develop a policy that doesn’t sound ridiculous. But more importantly it would weaken Johnson, who would be forced either to ask the EU for an extension or to resign. If he resigned, Corbyn might become prime minister without an election. In any case, Corbyn or another caretaker prime minister would agree a Brexit extension, which would mean that, in the eyes of many Leave voters, Johnson would have betrayed his “come what may” promise to get us out by 31 October.

This is not just hypocritical, moments after accusing Johnson of a coup against democracy, it is a dangerous and unprincipled game. It would still be possible, I think, for Johnson to win an election in December, as long as he wasn’t responsible for a further Brexit delay. If he won a majority, he would then be able to push through the no-deal Brexit Labour MPs say they don’t want.

Labour MPs should have voted for a deal when they had a chance. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was precisely the document a Labour prime minister would have negotiated in her place. If Britain ends up leaving the EU without a deal, Labour MPs will bear a large part of the responsibility.

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