In playing hardball, Johnson may be underrating his rivals | Heather Stewart | Politics
Boris “I don’t want an election, you don’t want an election” Johnson may very soon be asking MPs to give him the two-thirds majority he needs to send voters to the polls – as government briefing made clear soon after his statement outside No 10.
His short speech on Monday evening against a backdrop of chanting protesters was aimed squarely at exasperated voters: if we have to have a general election, don’t blame me.
The outcome of Tuesday’s attempt by backbenchers to take control of the parliamentary timetable to try to block a no-deal Brexit is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Party discipline has been fraying at the edges throughout the many months of this fractious hung parliament.
But by threatening to impose the severest sanction – permanent expulsion – on rebels, Johnson is effectively challenging them to choose between what they believe to be the national interest, and any political future inside their party. The stakes could not be higher.
It should come as no surprise that Johnson is playing hardball, for two reasons.
First, any prime minister would struggle to accept a piece of legislation that binds their hands quite so comprehensively – even specifying the wording of the letter he must write to the EU27 to secure an article 50 extension.
Yes, MPs are dealing with weighty issues, in a hung parliament, against the backdrop of extraordinary political ferment. But Johnson could hardly claim to be in power if this legislation passed: MPs would have shown they have no confidence in him, even if no formal vote of no confidence had been tabled.
Second, the leavers’ reading of Theresa May’s premiership was that she tended to underestimate the determination of the Brexiters, and overestimate the willingness of the “rebels” – the ex-remainers – to cross the floor. Ultimately, they believe Dominic Grieve and his pals are the soft underbelly of the Tory party, and are likely to fold.
But part of the reason this group sometimes tended to draw back from the brink during the May years is that they trusted her, or felt they had to act as though they did for the sake of party unity (a concern that never much troubled Steve Baker’s Spartans).
This time it is different. The only basis on which Johnson’s plea to his backbench colleagues (and indeed his cabinet) makes any sense is that he is pressing hard for a deal with the EU27, and needs the threat of a no-deal Brexit in his toolkit.
Certainly that was the message Johnson was keen to communicate after the G7 summit in Biarritz, where he played up the issues on which the UK stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the EU, without offering any concrete new proposals on the Northern Irish border.
But his problem in trying this argument on party colleagues is that many of them simply do not trust him – the man who drank a toast to Theresa May’s Chequers deal and then resigned in protest several days later. As Philip Hammond’s tone of livid disgust made clear on Radio 4’s Today programme on Tuesday, this is a party at war.
If Johnson does try to trigger a general election, Labour faces a tough tactical dilemma between backing the election they have long said they want, while simultaneously trying to avoid the “elephant trap”, as Tony Blair has called it, of Johnson changing the polling date, and pressing ahead with Brexit while parliament is suspended.
Every instinct of Jeremy Corbyn and his team will be telling them to back an election – they were invigorated by the 2017 campaign, and would hope, as they did then, to make it about more than just Brexit.
And they believe that whatever the “processology” in parliament, as they dismissively call it, the public are likely to see any refusal to power up the battle buses as cowardice. But many Labour members and shadow ministers will want Corbyn to ensure a no-deal Brexit has been ruled out categorically before he whips his MPs to back an election.
Only a fool or a charlatan would try to predict the outcome of a general election held against this backdrop, with both major parties deeply divided.
Labour will hope that, having backed a Brexit referendum, they have neutralised much of the challenge from the Liberal Democrats, who jumped on the remain bandwagon early, and will be able to focus instead on austerity, and bash Johnson as an establishment stooge.
The Tories will hope their hardline stance has helped them scoop up the Brexit party vote, but unlike May in 2017 they will also have something to say about bread-and-butter issues – boosting funding for the NHS and schools, and increasing police numbers.
And they will attack Labour both as seeking to block Brexit and being preoccupied with student-style protest politics distant from the real lives of voters in leave constituencies.
Even if Johnson battles on for the next few days and weeks, a general election is coming, probably sooner rather than later, and it is likely to be the hardest-fought and most unpredictable in many years.