EXPLAINED: Boris Johnson's 'do or die' strategy

Posted On: 
3rd September 2019

Boris Johnson is pursuing a 'do or die' strategy. But he has little alternative, writes Tony Grew

Boris Johnson outside Number Ten last night
Credit: 
PA

The government says if the Commons votes today to begin legislating to stop no deal they will seek a general election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, requiring two thirds of all MPs to vote for it. But what if there aren't sufficient numbers of MPs who want an election?

There are creative solutions being worked on in Downing St. After a summer of politicians dominating the airwaves and a week of over the top claims of a constitutional coup, the government has options.

Let's start with first principles. The prime minister is determined that his administration, despite a wafer thin majority, will not be ‘held to ransom’ by MPs. He has been clear that any Tory MP who does not vote with the government will have the whip taken away and will not be allowed to stand at the general election as a Conservative candidate. His critics say this is an unnecessarily aggressive approach thought up by Dominic Cummings that will cause untold damage to the party.

The new government is also resolute in its Brexit policy – the UK will leave the EU on 31st October, deal or no deal.

Another first principle of the new government is to be proactive rather than reactive, to threaten the worst in hope of compromise, not to sit back and let events happen to it.

Hence the Downing Street plan to deal with this threat to its authority – to trump the schemes of MPs determined to stop no deal with a general election.

The Labour leader has said he wants an early election, but his colleagues are concerned that the PM might then use his power to set a date beyond our departure date. The SNP are also in favour of an early election.

The government is using a carrot and stick approach – how much stick there is remains to be seen.

They will wait to see what happens today when the emergency debate is expected to take place. If the government is defeated, they will ask MPs for an early election. Tory MPs could end their political careers only for the government to seek an election on Wednesday. Labour could try to stop a government from leaving with no deal only to be presented with the chance of being in government well before the deadline.

The prime minister says he does not want an election, but that if the Commons defies his government and tries to take control, he will be presented with little option but to seek it. He can try the FTPA method, requiring two thirds of the Commons voting for one. If that fails, he could introduce a ‘notwithstanding’ motion, stating that the will of the House of Commons is to have an election and specifying a date, which would only require a simple majority of MPs to vote in favour. If that is not watertight, he could seek to do the same but through legislation, which would need to pass both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. If MPs vote for it in sufficient numbers it would be difficult for peers to deny it. 

There are other advantages for the mandateless prime minister of an early election. It would be over before the UK leaves the EU, and, if he wins, any disruption caused by no deal would be cushioned by the fact the government would not have to go to the country for another five years. By a happy coincidence the government has just launched a £100m advertising campaign to prepare the country for exit.

The Conservative party is also still reliant on the DUP. A general election could deliver the prime minister a majority and with it the freedom to suggest a new deal – a Northern Ireland only backstop. This solution is favoured by a majority of people in Northern Ireland, and it means the border issue disappears.  

In 2017 Labour said it would respect the result of the referendum: today it wants a second referendum. The Conservatives would have a simple message: vote for us to end this Brexit wrangling.

The Speaker's activist stance was a thorn in the side of the May administration. If there is a snap election, the Conservatives may decide to tear up some conventions of their own, and stand a candidate in one of the safest Tory seats in the country. Even if John Bercow survives the challenge and is re-elected by his constituents, a Conservative majority in the Commons would ensure he is not re-elected as Speaker in the new Parliament.

There are risks for the government in an early election, but they don't outweigh the advantages. The Brexit Party soared at the European elections – so did UKIP before them. When it came to Westminster elections Nigel Farage's party failed to win one seat. Boris Johnson loves the campaign trail as much as Theresa May dreaded it. Conservative MPs would be elected on a new manifesto that would bind them to support no deal if it came to it.

It would certainly be a 'do or die' strategy to have an election now. They could lose, or be stuck with another hung parliament. But the alternative is a government with no majority taking instructions from the opposition and the House of Lords – something neither Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings is willing to accept.