Boris Johnson would rather “die in a ditch” than request another delay to Brexit. That’s the clear message we’ve been hearing since the government dropped its parliamentary schemes to block the Benn Bill, which is due to receive Royal Assent today. Over the weekend, political news was dominated by furious speculation over how exactly the Prime Minister plans to stick to his “do or die” October 31st Brexit deadline. Would he resign and risk giving Jeremy Corbyn the keys to No10? Surely not. Could he break the law and get dragged into the courts? That would be ridiculous.
The latest rumoured ploy reported by The Telegraph would see Johnson send another letter alongside the one mandated by the Benn Bill requesting an Article 50 extension until January 31st. This additional document would outline the reasons for which the government thinks another delay would be undesirable; in other words, “LOL jk, don’t actually give us an extension”. Apparently the government is seriously considering this route, although lawyers including Lord Falconer and Lord Sumption have already shared their view that it wouldn’t be complying with the law. Labour’s legal advice is clear: the PM would be declared in contempt of court if he tried to occupy No10 while defying the law.
Whether the Prime Minister gets around the law while remaining in office or eventually complies after an ostentatious struggle, the crucial thing to note here is that he appears to be in control of the narrative. All the various schemes and rebellious moves briefed to papers fit neatly into Johnson’s preferred framework of ‘parliament versus the people’ – with the Etonian absurdly pitched as one of us ordinary folk. This populist game plan is deeply challenging for Labour.
Those who just want the political elite to ‘get on with it’, after three years of chaotic procrastination, won’t want to see another pointless extension that promises neither to deliver Brexit nor put an end to it. Unfortunately, Johnson’s bold decisiveness could have great appeal, particularly against Labour’s Brexit position that promises yet another public vote soon after the election. Brenda from Bristol might be happy to help break the Brexit deadlock with one trip to the polling station, but two in quick succession?
The government is expected to put forward another early election motion under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act today, and the opposition parties including Labour have agreed to block a snap poll once again. They don’t trust Johnson to abide by the anti-no deal law – and quite reasonably so, given his recent statements. Johnson’s attempts to shame the opposition leader into agreeing to an election – calling Corbyn a “totally spineless chicken” and, er, making cool stickers portraying him as Colonel Sanders – have not worked, and will be irrelevant once Labour does agree to an early election.
Yet I wouldn’t assume, as I heard many Labour activists do this weekend, that because the PM is losing votes in parliament he is losing overall. Parliamentary scheming might be clever, and effective in achieving short-term goals, but it’s bound to be unattractive to the public – certainly beyond the Labour’s Remain-heavy 2017 electoral coalition, which let’s not forget did not deliver a majority for Corbyn. The main opposition party must not be seen as the establishment, and cannot allow Johnson to seize the rebellious political space that Corbyn so clearly used to occupy.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.