Forget the spin. The Prime Minister said he wouldn’t, under any circumstances, ask for a Brexit delay. He has done just that. The Prime Minister promised to ‘get Brexit done’ by October 31st. He won’t. This is a theme that Labour will continue to highlight: the untrustworthiness of Boris Johnson. It is this message that will have to battle against that of the Tories in the upcoming election – we tried our absolute best to deliver Brexit, but Remainer MPs thwarted our efforts, so give us a majority to get it done. And the latest Brexit developments mean that election is ever closer.
Last night, 19 Labour MPs defied the whip to approve Johnson’s Brexit bill at its second reading – and it passed with a majority of 30 votes. That looks pretty comfortable when we consider that Theresa May tried three times to get Commons approval for her (more agreeable) deal and failed on each occasion. But it doesn’t look quite as good if you take into account that many of these Labour rebels saw the second reading as merely an opportunity to express willingness to vote for a Brexit deal, not this particular one.
The reasoning of MPs such as Lisa Nandy was that second reading simply opened up opportunities to amend the bill – for instance to add a customs union, which could kill it. And it looks to me as if only a minority would back the deal without those crucial changes. The more important figure from the latest votes was four – that is how many Labour MPs voted for both the bill and the government’s programme motion.
In an attempt to bounce the 21 ex-Tories into backing the programme motion, the famous No10 source briefed out that the bill would be pulled if MPs rejected the government-proposed timetable. This threat didn’t work, and ultimately Johnson didn’t go that far. Instead, he has made pulling the bill dependent on the length of the EU’s proposed extension. A few weeks? He could work with that and try to get the bill through unamended. But a delay to January or beyond? He would try to trigger an early general election again.
That is tricky territory for Labour, where there is intense disagreement over whether to back the move or find another excuse to delay a snap poll further. A winter election is far from ideal for a party dependent on the votes of people who are least inclined to go out and vote. But if the EU does take an October 31st no deal off the table, the Lib Dems and the SNP are happy to sign off on an election and there is little justification at that point for Labour not to show an urgent willingness to get the Tories out. There may be a rebellion, yet current policy dictates that Jeremy Corbyn will whip in favour of an election under those circumstances. Get your wooly hat and fluffy mittens ready. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.