Did Johnson just bottle it?

by Hugo Dixon | 02.09.2019

The prime minister just made emergency statement to say what exactly? That he’ll break law, resign, call an election or go back on his word. Take your pick.

After all the briefing that he was going to call an election this evening, Boris Johnson’s said he didn’t want an election – and the public didn’t want one either. But the prime minister also said one other thing – that, in no circumstances, would he ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond October 31.

The snag is that this week Parliament is likely to pass a law requiring the prime minister to do precisely that, after crude attempts to blackmail Tory rebels backfired. The text of the Bill being promoted by Hilary Benn, the chair of the House of Commons Brexit Committee, was published this evening.

So how will Johnson reconcile a promise not to ask for an extension with Parliament’s likely insistence that he must?

Well, the bill actually gives him two let-out clauses: he could do a deal with the EU and get it through Parliament; or he could persuade MPs to agree to crash out with no deal at all. There’s little chance of either of those happening. And if neither happens by October 19, the prime minister must ask the EU to delay Brexit until January 31.

So what else is Johnson left with? Well, one option would be to tell the Queen not to give Royal Assent to the law, an idea he refused to rule out in an interview with the Sunday Times. Another would be to break the law – something Michael Gove refused to rule out in an interview with the BBC yesterday. Both of these would amount to a coup.

If Johnson doesn’t want to descend deeper into the heart of darkness, he has several alternatives. One would be to resign. The legislation, after all, only calls on the “prime minister” to ask the EU for extra time. (See clause 1(4)). He wouldn’t have to ask for a delay if he was no longer prime minister. That would be his successor’s duty. The snag is that he would then be the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.

Election calling?

Another option would be to try to call an election, win an overall majority and change the new law – all before October 19. The earliest an election could now be called is on October 14 –  the date the ITV’s Robert Peston tweeted would be chosen if MPs do pass their legislation.

Johnson may still try to do this despite saying he didn’t want an election. But he doesn’t have the power to do so unilaterally. He must first persuade two-thirds of MPs to vote in favour of one – and the opposition would be foolish to say “yes” unless he first delayed Brexit.

If Johnson lost an election but Jeremy Corbyn didn’t get an overall majority, he could theoretically hang onto power until Parliament was recalled – and a sitting prime minister can advise the Queen when to do that. Even if he promised an early recall, nobody should believe him given how much he has already played fast and loose with our democracy.

There’s another problem for Johnson with the snap election idea. Say he won it on October 14. Parliament couldn’t be recalled for a few days. It would then have to choose a Speaker, MPs would have to swear an oath and there would have to be a Queen’s Speech. All that would have to happen before he could change back the law so he didn’t have to ask the EU for extra time. There just isn’t time.

The only way he could avoid that would be if he could persuade MPs not to pass their legislation in the first place. But they would be mugs to do that.

So what’s left? How could Johnson reconcile his promise not to ask for extra time with Parliament’s likely requirement that he should? Well, he could just go back on his word. It wouldn’t be the first time that he has.

Tags: , Categories: Brexit, UK Politics

12 Responses to “Did Johnson just bottle it?”

  • That was a very good synthesis from Hugo on the options and thinking going on behind the scenes in Wacky Bozzy Bear Land.
    I didn‘t realise that Bozzy bear requires 2/3 of parliament to agree to a new election? This would appear to be a gift to parliament provided that the law they intend to pass this week is successful. Clearly parliament could attach conditions to this to ensure that the current dangers are shifted well and truly to the right, if the Tories are hell bent on an election.
    A key question which would arise out of a general election being declared – would the Raging Farage pit his army of Brexit (Party) plc acolytes against the Tories? Recently he was spitting blood and fury to do this, in the event that Bozzy failed to come up with the goods – the famous ‘do or die‘.
    Let‘s wait and see.

  • The House of Commons should
    1 – pass the Benn bill
    2 – reject that call for a General Election

    What would B Johnson do then?

  • Johnson has also bottled it in the sense that he was ‘going to bring the country together’. We are now more divided than ever. We have a civil war. It is very depressing.

  • Surely it is clear that Boris is not negotiating in good faith with the EU to find a modified version of the Withdrawal Agreement with a tweaked backstop, because he knows that with his Brexit Ultra cabinet there is no way that he will get them to accept the WA in any shape or form. He is just winding down the clock to October 31 when we will leave with an undemocratic and seriously damaging no-deal Brexit. After which, as the soft brown smelly stuff hits the fan he will start to think that perhaps this PM lark is not quite the fun he thought it was going to be.
    So I don’t believe in a modified deal coming forward in the next few weeks, but there is sufficient turmoil in Parliament now that Boris’s direct trajectory to no-deal could be upset by the Rebel Alliance leading to a snap election. I would not put money on Jezza winning that, but Boris may not get his absolute majority. What price his alliance with the Faragista?
    Heavens, what a mess.

  • Johnson should just declare that Brexit is complete and over the line, and send out certificates to that effect to every household. That would satisfy most Leavers and a new referendum on whether to paint buses a different colour would soon inflame the passions again, in the course of which 2016 would be quickly forgotten

  • Given Johnson’s difficult history with the truth, I find it hard to take at face value anything he says. An election may well be a trap, as he could call it after 31 October.
    The sources saying 14 October are not official. Even if they were official, I wouldn’t trust them.

  • Johnson’s difficulties with the truth coming back to haunt him most spectacularly. Watched Mr. Paxman going off at him as well as most of the other politicians here yesterday, watched a second programme about politicians and Brexit and am reading Isabel Hardman’s book about why we get the wrong politicians all at the same time. This country is changing again and finding back its reason and pride in its democracy. The real stuff, I mean, not what brexiteers made of it. Hope it is not too late and if it is that the EU will be sports enough to see what happened and not give us a hard time letting us back in. But what excitement!

  • Ask the queen not to give royal assent to Benn’s Law. There’s a snag there; going by her willingness to grant Johnson a longer prorogation of parliament, I’m not willing to trust that she wouldn’t withhold royal assent. That could be Johnson’s course to crash out.

  • If Borisolini is allowed to get away with defying the law it spells the end of the rule of law & good governance in the UK. I take it we’re all then free to disregard whatever laws we don’t like? Perhaps the SNP should simply declare UDI. Borisolini may have escaped a charge of misconduct in public office this year but I rather think that wilfully ignoring an Act of Parliament may be a different matter.

    And then there’s impeachment. Borisolini may be looking at many years in the Tower – now wouldn’t that be karma?

  • If anybody should be in the tower then I would suggest Phillip Hammond and his treacherous cohorts!
    No wonder we never had an acceptable deal with him and his mates in government working for the other side.