Boris Johnson trapped as opposition parties hatch election plan
Opposition likely to wait until suspension of parliament ends to make their move
UK prime minister Boris Johnson: obliged to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he fails to secure a withdrawal agreement by October 19th. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA
The decision by opposition parties to prevent Boris Johnson from holding a general election before November has caught him in a trap that could wreck his hopes of winning a majority. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders declined to give details of the plan they agreed on Friday, hoping to keep the government guessing.
But when Johnson next Monday seeks a general election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, they will deny him the necessary two-thirds majority. They also appear to have agreed not to table a motion of no confidence in the government but to wait until Johnson’s five-week suspension of parliament ends in mid-October to make their move.
A Bill that completed its passage through both houses of parliament on Friday obliges the prime minister to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he fails to secure a withdrawal agreement by October 19th. The opposition parties want to be sure that parliament is sitting when Johnson is due to write the letter to the European Council seeking an article 50 extension.
He said this week he would prefer to be “dead in a ditch” than to seek an extension, and his electoral strategy depends on crushing the Brexit Party by fulfilling his promise to take the UK out of the EU on October 31st. If a no-deal Brexit is impossible, Johnson’s only option for keeping his promise would be leave the EU on time with a negotiated deal.
The prospects of reaching a deal within the next six weeks are not good, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney said on Friday night that some recent changes in the UK’s negotiating stance have moved the process backwards. EU negotiators are sceptical about the UK proposal for an all-Ireland sanitary and phytosanitary and agri-food regulatory zone, ruling out a piecemeal or sectoral approach.
Dublin insists any solution to the Border after Brexit must be based on regulatory alignment rather than technological or administrative measures to mitigate cross-Border friction.
UK ministers are not yet ready to embrace a Northern Ireland-only backstop, although Johnson has this week agreed to the principle of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Even without DUP support, the prime minister has a chance of winning a majority for a withdrawal agreement with a Northern Ireland-only backstop with the help of Labour MPs from Leave-voting seats.
And after his purge of moderate Conservative MPs this week, Johnson warned Brexiteer hardliners that what is sauce for the goose will be sauce for the gander if they refuse to vote for his deal.