Despite Boris Johnson’s determination to deliver Brexit on October 31st after having struck a deal with Brussels that is suitable to most Tories, parliamentary arithmetic has made it impossible for the Prime Minister to fulfil a pledge that lifted him to victory during the Conservative Party’s leadership contest. Boris said he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than delay leaving the EU, but European Council President Donald Tusk has now provided Britain with a flexitension that means the government has until January 31st 2020 to get his deal approved by Parliament.
This is not the outcome the Prime Minister wanted, but he should not resign just because Britain’s EU exit has been delayed beyond October. Another Tory leadership election would halt Brexit beyond the beginning of 2020 and devastate the Conservative Party’s reputation as the only party capable of ensuring the UK leaves the EU. Furthermore, Boris has public opinion on his side. A ComRes study for The Daily Telegraph discovered eight in ten voters would blame Parliament if leaving the EU had to be delayed beyond October 31st, and seven in ten would blame Remain-supporting MPs. Interestingly, two-thirds would blame the European Commission.
Last week’s defeat of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary table to ensure his deal is approved by MPs has thwarted the Third Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The latter would have enabled opposition MPs to attach amendments like a second referendum and the option for the UK to remain in the Customs Union anyway. This proves Boris is being hamstrung by Parliament.
He has no choice but to call a general election to make Brexit a reality.
However, an election is also a huge gamble for Boris. As proven during the 2017 General Election, there is no guarantee that a campaign with a central Brexit theme can deliver the Conservatives a majority. It became clear that year that voters still cared about education, health and other matters, which is why pledges like ‘the dementia tax’ had a negative effect on Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ message. The BBC referred to it as one of the most important reasons why May lost her majority that year. Any other messages the former Prime Minister wanted to communicate to people were overshadowed by a policy that meant elderly citizens would have to sell their homes to pay for their social care.
In 2017, the Conservatives were confident the threat of UKIP had been quelled, but Nigel Farage has since re-emerged with the Brexit Party that will campaign for a no-deal Brexit and nothing else. They cost the Tories the Peterborough and Brecon by-elections earlier this year and could do further damage to the party in many key seats.
Despite all these obstacles, holding an election is the best decision Boris can make in such challenging circumstances. A lack of a majority has caused the Government to become dependent upon the DUP to remain in office and they are also a significant threat to Boris’s deal having voted against it last week. The 2017 General Election’s outcome meant that Brussels was never going to take May seriously and she had no mandate to leave the EU without a deal.
The odds of victory are in the Tories’ favour. An Opinium poll conducted between October 23rd-25th found the Conservatives 16 points ahead of Labour at 40 per cent. They snatched 16 points from the Liberal Democrats. If the Conservative Party conduct a more sophisticated campaign than they did in 2017, victory could be theirs again.
Last week, there was a majority of 30 in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and that is without a Tory majority. Boris’s deal could be approved by MPs much quicker if the Conservatives had one. Therefore, an election is the only way to break this Brexit impasse.