Boris Johnson keeps saying he really, really doesn’t want an election. In reality, he wants nothing more. It’s the only way out of the Brexit mess he finds himself in.
The British Prime Minister has been cornered by his own political missteps and parliamentary defeats. He is still insisting he will take the UK out of the European Union on October 31 – with or without a deal. But his negotiations with the EU appear more or less dead in the water and Parliament passed a bill this week that requires him to ask the EU for an extension if no agreement is reached.
Johnson said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask for a delay but also refused to say he’d resign if it got to that point. He wrote to Conservative MPs to say that asking the EU for a Brexit extension “is something I will never do,” reported the Daily Telegraph, which saw a copy of the letter he sent on Friday night.
But barring the possibility of knowingly breaking the law, an election is the only way he can keep his word.
The election option
It looks like a good idea. Johnson is ahead in the polls and if he could secure a larger majority, his problems would – at least partially – disappear.
The problem: It’s not up to Boris Johnson to decide when Brits go to the polls.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, the law that sets the rules on how election is called, at least two-thirds of lawmakers need to support a call for an early vote.
Johnson lost his first bid to hold an election on Wednesday, but decided to schedule another vote on the issue in the House of Commons on Monday. Opposition parties came out with an unusually united front on Friday, saying they would not support it.
Johnson could try to bypass the super-majority hurdle by putting down a new piece of legislation that would effectively override the current election law. A one-line bill would suffice, saying something along the lines of “notwithstanding the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the election will be held on day X.”
“The advantage there is that you would only need a simple majority… the disadvantage is that he doesn’t have a majority anymore, so it’s unlikely that that would pass either,” says Ian Dunt, a British political commentator who edits the politics.co.uk wesbite.
Johnson’s minority problem
The Prime Minister lost his working parliamentary majority earlier this week when a Conservative MP dramatically defected at the start of his first speech after the summer recess. Johnson then further undermined his position by firing 21 rebel Conservatives who voted against the government, in support of the bill to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Another issue with a one-line bill is that just like any legislation in Parliament, it would be open to amendment. Johnson would risk the opposition teaming up with Conservative rebels to change the law in a way that could hurt him even more – altering the election date, or extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds, a measure mooted for years but that is thought to benefit progressive parties.
The no-confidence option
A nuclear option would be to call a no-confidence vote in his own government.
“It would get him to where he possibly wants, there would be a general election, unless within 14 days his or another government can secure a confidence vote,” said Ruth Fox, the director of the Hansard Society, a leading constitutional research organization.
However, she points out the absurdity of that situation: “It would be extraordinary for a government to lay a motion of no confidence in itself and encourage [its] party to vote for that.”
Aside of being potentially embarrassing and completely unprecedented, the move could also run afoul of the UK’s unwritten constitution.