Will Boris Johnson Get A December Election With Divide And Rule Tactics?

Cross-party alliances snap past breaking point when elections loom.

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Voting in the dark?

After months of being imprisoned by his lack of a parliamentary majority, Boris Johnson is hoping for a jailbreak that will finally free him to deliver Brexit. And in one of the most curious quirks of this entire saga, it may be his gaolers who hand him the keys to his Commons cell.

In what looks like a classic divide-and-rule tactic, the PM seems to be using the flipside of a hung parliament - the sheer lack of numbers for an alternative Brexit plan - to exploit the deep-seated tensions between the SNP, Lib Dems and Labour and other parties.

On Tuesday, when Johnson tables his new Elections Bill to fix the date of the next election as December 12, there will be a huge temptation by opposition parties to finally bite the bullet and support a pre-Christmas polling day.

They’re going to try and make him sweat, no doubt. The date may well be tweaked to December 11 or 10 to look like there’s been some give-and-take on all sides. Crucially, No.10 is telling us that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will not be brought back, a key demand of both the SNP’s Ian Blackford and Lib Dems’ Jo Swinson.

Moreover, wrecking amendments to give votes to 16-year-olds, or EU citizens, look unlikely to be red lines for either party. Their bigger calculation appears to be that this is their last chance to fight an election in which a ‘Boris Brexit’ is still a hypothetical issue rather than hard fact.

The very notion of a winter election would normally be frowned upon by parties who have strong Scots roots. If you need one example for how difficult it may be, regardless of the weather, to get out the vote, consider this: in Shetland on December 12, the sun rises at 9am and sets at 3pm. And that’s in the seat of Lib Dem veteran Alistair Carmichael. People will literally be voting in the dark.

For Labour, it was the idea of a ‘blind Brexit’ (or the risk of a ‘no-deal Brexit’) that for so long justified its opposition to an election. Yet on Monday, the threat of a no-deal was ‘taken off the table’, at least until January 31, when the EU agreed the extension to the UK’s membership.

And just as Johnson managed to get a Brexit deal with Brussels by stripping away all the obstacles, excuses and red lines stopping one (including his own), so too he wants to remove all of Labour’s red lines. The aim is to force Corbyn into a position where he finally backs an election or is seen to be dragged against his will to the polls.

Corbyn added an extra reason/excuse (delete according to your view) on Monday night, namely the disenfranchisement of students who may be at home for Christmas by the time of Johnson’s preferred date. In a rare show of solidarity with Channel 4 News, No.10 pointed to its FactCheck finding that in fact not one of the largest 40 universities will have ended their term on December 12. Is Corbyn only really worried about Oxbridge students, whose term ends super early? Surely not?

Some Labour MPs were genuinely hoping that they could hold off polling day to the spring. That would require yet another Benn Act-style forcing of an extension on the PM, and another EU decision to agree a new deadline. A handful of Tory rebels actually favour a long extension to next summer to allow time for a second referendum, but that ship seems to have sailed.

Many in the parliamentary Labour party think Corbyn has failed to ram home Johnson’s own broken promise on his Halloween Brexit pledge. If an election does go ahead, the main story of this week will be about concrete December dates, not missed October deadlines.

In fact, Labour could end up the most divided party in this deeply divided parliament. If so, we will have gone full circle. It was 48 years ago precisely, on October 28, 1971, that the Commons voted by a majority of 112 to approve Ted Health’s British membership of the Common Market. It happened with the help of 69 Labour votes.

More importantly, Labour MPs and some close to Jeremy Corbyn would prefer to actually fight an election with Brexit already delivered, not least so they could clearly turn the contest into one about austerity rather than the issue of Europe.

Many others in the party wanted to at least amend the Brexit bill to remove the ‘trapdoor’ threat of a no-trade-deal exit during the transition period that lasts until December 2020. The fundamental problem with all such plans is that the SNP and Lib Dems just don’t want any Brexit at all, even if it is ‘soft’ or part of a new referendum.

And the harsh reality may be that months of cross-party cooperation are just too difficult to maintain, especially when different parties know they will soon be fighting each other and not just the Tories. The brute forces of political gravity, and enmity, are hard to defy.

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Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson announced plans for a new Elections Bill to allow a simple majority vote to fix the date of the next election as December 12. His move came after the Commons failed to give him the two-thirds majority required an early polling day under current legislation.

Michael Gove paused no-deal preparations and the controversial ‘Get Ready For Brexit’ on October 31 ad campaign. No10 announced the news after Brussels agreed to a flexible extension to January 31.

Diane Abbott let slip her frustration with the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). “What I actually said in Shadow Cabinet today, ‘in the run-up to 2017 election, some Labour MPs were crying in my office and in the tearoom as if it’s a f***ing funeral, saying Jeremy should stand down, then they all got re-elected with increased majorities’.”

Labour MP Keith Vaz is facing suspension from the Commons for six months after he was found to have ‘expressed willingness’ to purchase cocaine for others. If MPs confirm the punishment, it will trigger the opening of a recall petition in his Leicester East constituency. If Labour suspend him, he will not be the candidate at the next election.

John Mann officially resigned as a Labour MP in order to take up a peerage and become an adviser on anti-Semitism for the Government. The move means the PM has one less vote in the Commons for his Brexit plan.

The People’s Vote campaign was plunged into more bitter infighting following an attempt to sack two senior figures, Tom Baldwin and James McGrory.

What I’m Reading

What The New Right Gets Wrong About Liberal Democracy - The Bulwark.

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