Why Boris Johnson And Brexit Are Now In Limboland

The key issue is whether the prime minister wants a winter general election or a spring one.

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The ditch is back

He was so near, yet so far. In the long distance steeplechase that is Brexit, Boris Johnson has done something Theresa May never could and cleared his first parliamentary hurdle. But within minutes he got bogged down in the water jump. The question is whether he now wants to finish the race or cut and run for another event altogether, a general election.

Just six weeks ago, the PM warned us he’d rather be ‘dead in a ditch’ than allow a delay beyond October 31. But just how serious is he about now triggering that snap election rather than breaching the Halloween deadline?

There has been a vigorous debate among the PM’s allies and among ministers on this key question: which is preferable, a winter election without a deal or a spring election with one?

Those who want polling day in late November or early December think the PM can campaign on the deal that he’s secured so far from Brussels.

He would credibly be able to say he’d done his best to meet the October deadline but - thanks to the programme motion defeat tonight - parliament tied his hands. Those pushing for an election also think that it would allow him to exploit Labour’s confused position on Brexit.‌

Proving perhaps that the Tory party really, really doesn’t understand how Labour works, some even think that any delay to spring would give their opponents a chance to dump Jeremy Corbyn (that ain’t gonna happen, folks). A better case is that waiting until next year would allow Corbyn to frame the election as a ‘10 years of Tory cuts/save the NHS’ contest.

But there are others inside and outside No.10 who think a much safer option is to bite the bullet of a short Brexit delay and blame others for it. Even if there’s a November election, we won’t be out of the EU by Halloween, they argue. The 30-strong majority for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill looked very robust indeed (with 19 Labour votes).‌

If he accepts a short delay, the PM could bask in the glory of getting a Brexit deal through parliament, then pass a Queen’s Speech and a budget with some juicy tax cuts and spending splurges due to kick in on March 31. All this without the blowback from Brenda from Bristol fed up at the idea of traipsing out to vote just before Christmas.

Those who think the PM is bluffing about a snap election can point to his recent tactics. At the weekend, he sent a letter to the EU requesting an extension while trying to make it look like he’d done nothing of the kind. Today, he threatened to ‘pull’ his bill if he didn’t get his accelerated timetable, only to actually ‘pause’ it instead.

So will we get a short extension or not? Johnson said he will speak to EU member states “about their intentions” and “until they have reached a decision”. That felt like him trying to again put the ball in the EU’s court once more (No.10 stressed Halloween was Brussels’ date not theirs).‌

Yet when we hacks asked the PM’s spokesman just what he would be saying in his phone calls to EU leaders, there was no clear answer. We may not get an answer from Brussels either until next week (although Donald Tusk tweeted that he would “recommend the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension”).

A three-month extension would of course be a maximum, and the moment a deal is passed the extension would end. As I’ve written before, I’m told that the government could live with a fortnight’s delay, but no one will say that publicly of course.

So it’s not just the Withdrawal Bill that is in ‘limbo’, as Speaker Bercow put it. Johnson’s decision on a snap election is going through its own purgatory. Bercow put it neatly thus: “The bill is not dead but it is inert. It is not on a journey, it is not progressing. But it is not a corpse.” That sounds like Brexit itself.

Crucially, Jacob Rees-Mogg has decided to push ahead with the Queen’s Speech debate this week rather than seriously consider Labour’s offer of talks on a little more time for the bill (eight more days is what I’m told is on the table). He even said “there is no point in bringing forwards a business motion” to set a new timetable. That suggests this may be a government veering towards an election after all.

The Commons Leader also said that the original religious version of limbo “was a place for souls of those who died before salvation...brought to us at the point of the resurrection”. He will be hoping that the PM’s dying in that Halloween ditch is just the prelude to the Tory resurrection come polling day.

Quote Of The Day

“My wife and I spent longer choosing a sofa than we have to debate this incredibly important bill.”

– Shadow minister Karl Turner laments the time allocated to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Tuesday Cheat Sheet

The Commons voted by 329 votes to 299 for the second reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It then voted by 322 votes to 308 to reject the government’s fast-tracked timetable for the legislation.‌

Irish PM Leo Varadkar told colleagues he wants Brexit done by October 31 so he can see pop legend Cher in concert in Dublin the following day.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier suggested to the European Parliament that the planned 14-month transition period would not be long enough to sort a trade and security deal. It could take “maybe two three or more years for some areas” to get agreed.

Labour chair Ian Lavery accused shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer of trying to ‘ram down my throat’ his support for a referendum before a general election. Diane Abbott and Dan Cardenreportedly supported Lavery as he complained Starmer had backed an amendment by Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson.

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