Boris Johnson’s bid to force an early general election looked set to fall flat after Labour and opposition parties signalled they would block the move.
Jeremy Corbyn, who has since 2017 been calling for a snap poll, said on Thursday night that he will only back Monday’s motion for an election when a no-deal Brexit is “off the table”.
But confusion reigned over whether Labour’s crucial opposition to the move was set in stone after the party’s chief whip told MPs to abstain.
It comes as a flurry of MPs warned Corbyn against falling into a “trap” which could open the door to a no-deal crash-out when the Article 50 deadline runs out.
In an interview, the Labour leader said he would make clear on Friday whether Labour will back an election after Brussels is expected to announce that it will delay Brexit until January 31.
On Thursday night, the Labour leader said: “Take no-deal off the table and we absolutely support a general election.
“I’ve been calling for an election ever since the last one because this country needs one to deal with all the social injustice issues – but no-deal must be taken off the table.”
Labour’s position has for weeks been that it would back a snap poll once there was no possibility of a no-deal Brexit, and if any Article 50 extension offered by the EU “allows” an election without that threat.
Pressed on whether an extension to the end of January would constitute no-deal being taken off the table, Corbyn replied: “We will know tomorrow what the extension will be and I can answer that question tomorrow. We are not resisting the chance to have an election.”
Number 10 says it wants an election to take place on December 12, which would give MPs until November 5 to push through vital Brexit legislation which supports the PM’s deal. A spokesman warned the government would pull the bill if Labour refuses the election proposal.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “If they [Labour] refuse this timetable and if they refuse to go the extra mile to complete Brexit, then we will have no choice but to conclude they are not really sincere in their desire to get this done.
“And therefore, the government will not proceed with the bill and simply campaign, every stage and every opportunity for a general election and make the case that this exhausted parliament must now submit to the judgement of the people.”
But if Corbyn were to decide to back a snap poll, he risks a major split among MPs as many fear Johnson will use a timetable he controls to force a crash-out. Scores went on record after Johnson’s statement to publicly make clear an election could gift the PM “the early Christmas present that he so badly wants”.
Coryn ally and shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett said Johnson “must now face the electorate”, while Richard Burgon and Dan Carden were also said to be in favour of a snap poll.
But in a sign of splits among Corbyn’s top team, shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner said it was “bang on the money” to view Johnson’s offer as a distraction.
Corbyn was also warned that around 140 Labour MPs will not back a snap election, with one source saying: “If Labour whips for it there will be mass defiance and civil war.”
Meanwhile, Neil Coyle told HuffPost UK: “Around 140 colleagues have been in touch with Jeremy Corbyn to tell him not to fall into this trap.
“We recognise that this is a trap and it allows Boris Johnson to keep no-deal on the table. I’m minded not to vote for an early election because it gives Boris Johnson the early Christmas present that he so badly wants.”
Clive Lewis also told this website Corbyn should not back an election on Johnson’s terms.
“Whatever we decide it should be on our terms not his,” he said.
Second referendum-backing Labour MP Mary Creagh described the PM’s plan as a “dead cat” while Lucy Powell called it a “shallow threat”.
Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman meanwhile recalled the famous saying “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”, telling Sky News: “I don’t believe in giving Boris Johnson an election on Boris Johnson’s terms.
“He doesn’t want to talk about the economy, he doesn’t want to talk about the future of our country, he only wants to talk about Brexit, he thinks he’ll get a Brexit bounce, and I don’t want him to get that.
“I think Jeremy Corbyn will stick to what we’ve all agreed in the PLP (parliamentary Labour party) and that is we will not give Boris Johnson an election until it’s time.
“And time will be when we can have a general election with Brexit behind us.”
He added: “I think Jim Callaghan used to say ‘turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’.
“I think we aren’t turkeys but we’re sensible, we know you don’t run to an election when you don’t have to.
“Why do we want to ruin everyone’s Christmas?”
Wes Streeting, a prominent Corbyn critic, told Sky: “I think the most important thing we do now is resolve Brexit first.
“And I have to say I don’t think given the prime minister’s now talking about a general election on top of Christmas that many voters will thank us for it.
“Frankly, events in this place have made the country miserable for the best part of the last two years.
“The idea that we impose a nightmare before Christmas, dragging people out to vote when it’s cold, when it’s wet, when it’s dark, I don’t think we’ll be thanked by anyone.
“But I also think fundamentally as a point of principle - people expect parliament to resolve Brexit one way or another before we go to a general election, where they want to vote on all manner of issues.”