Another extraordinary in parliament day saw Boris Johnson perform badly at PMQs and lose further votes, as MPs voted for the backbench anti-no deal legislation and against his early election motion. The Benn Bill passed its initial stages in the Commons, though not without hiccups. At one particularly chaotic moment in the chamber, Stephen Kinnock’s amendment seeking to ‘make the Withdrawal Agreement Bill happen’ was approved unexpectedly. How? No division was called, despite there being plenty of members in the ‘No’ voting lobby, because the sneaky government declined to put up tellers – which meant the Kinnock change simply passed by default.
Quite extraordinary scenes, but not as ruinous as some Tories might have hoped: the bill now merely instructs the Prime Minister to give the passing of the ‘WAB’ as a reason for requesting an Article 50 extension. Of course Kinnock is delighted by the result – saying, “I’m very pleased that we won the vote tonight, albeit in peculiar circumstances!” – but it doesn’t (and was not designed to) change the function of the Benn Bill. It is not a ‘wrecking’ amendment.
The other main concern over the bill’s safe passage was the Lords; fortunately, that seems to have been resolved in the early hours of this morning. The peers sat until 1.30am, voting on amendment after amendment as Brexiteers tried to filibuster the session and derail the bill. An agreement was then struck, and the government chief whip in the Lords announced that all stages would be completed by 5pm tomorrow. (Fingers crossed there are “no further frustrations”, as Baroness Smith put it.) The Benn Bill therefore has a chance of gaining Royal Assent on Friday, as Labour hopes.
The big debate within the Labour Party on its preferred timing for an early election has intensified. On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for a chance to kick out this government for years and that is, after all, the main duty of the opposition. His spokesman yesterday said the party is “committed to the earliest possible election” (while ensuring no deal on October 31st has been prevented). Responding to the Prime Minister’s early election motion, the Labour leader reiterated his view: “Let this bill pass and gain Royal Assent, then we will back an election.” This suggests the party could back one as soon as Monday. And yet a very sizable rebellion is promised if Corbyn tries to whip for an October election.
Labour MPs want an election to take place only after October 31st. Why? They don’t trust Boris Johnson to abide by the Benn Bill, which he dubs the “Surrender Bill”. Perhaps more importantly, they want the country to see the Prime Minister fail and show that he couldn’t deliver on his ‘do or die’ promise. This would damage his image and weaken his electoral position, Labour MPs argue. Plus, their party would do better fighting an election when there is the slightest possibility that issues other than Brexit can get a look-in.
The PM will ramp up the pressure today by leaving Westminster (probably a good idea – it’s not gone well there) and speaking directly to the public. He will say that Corbyn is “cowardly running away from an election”. To complicate matters, the SNP is taking a similar line: although Corbyn is complying with the demands of Remainers by prioritising anti-no deal legislation, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that “it’s starting to feel like Labour doesn’t want an election at all”. The confident SNP, riding high in the polls, is keen to trigger an election before parliament is suspended, which is likely on Monday.
Keir Starmer has made his position clear at the despatch box – he wants to approve an election only after “implementation” of the Benn Bill (i.e. October 19th), and favours the vote of no confidence route. John McDonnell has said he’d prefer to have the election “later rather than sooner”. All eyes on Corbyn’s next move: will it be October 15th or will Labour let Johnson “stew in his own juices”?Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.