Before he became prime minister, one of the most frequent arguments against Boris Johnson was his inconsistency and faithlessness, both in politics and in love. He is the only politician in British history whose Wikipedia entry is uncertain about the number of children he has sired: The immortal words “five or six” are listed instead. But in Downing Street, Johnson has eased into a remarkably consistent pattern of parliamentary defeat.
He has lost all four votes in the Commons since becoming prime minister and all 17 in the House of Lords. He even lost his own brother: Jo Johnson, the higher education minister, has announced he will stand down as an MP because he was unable to reconcile his duties as an MP with his responsibilities as a brother.
No British prime minister has a similar record of defeat. Not all of the fault is Johnson’s. He inherited a parliamentary majority that had been whittled down, first by electoral defeat in 2017 and over the last two years by a string of defections to the opposition parties, usually over the government’s embrace of Brexit, that reduced it to zero.
During the summer, Johnson enjoyed a brief period of political success and favorable headlines through adapting the old workplace cliché about dressing for the job you want, not the job you have. He acted as if he were in possession of a reliable parliamentary majority, freely announcing extravagant spending commitments and making grand promises to resolve the Brexit crisis. Then MPs returned from their summer holidays and it became apparent that no amount of dressing for success could alter the basic reality.
Johnson’s expressed first preference—to leave the European Union by October 31, regardless of whether he has successfully negotiated an exit deal with the bloc—has now been frustrated by MPs who last night voted to force him to seek an extension to the United Kingdom’s EU membership in order to give them more time to decide how best to deliver Brexit, or whether to deliver it at all.
The prime minister’s response—to call for a general election—is designed for two purposes: to get favorable coverage from the United Kingdom’s press, which is heavily dominated by conservative publications, and to persuade British voters to give Johnson the parliamentary majority that he is presently only pretending to have.
Johnson’s immediate problem is that thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the timing of elections is no longer in the hands of the sitting prime minister. Under its provisions, an early election can be secured only by a two-thirds vote of the House of Commons. In practice, when the prime minister wants an election, they can still get one, because opposition parties won’t pass up an opportunity—however remote—to replace the government.
Before the last election in June 2017, the Conservative lead in the polls was so large that on the night the contest was announced, Labour MPs gathered in Parliament’s bars and shared their insecure majorities in the manner of patients on a cancer ward discussing their prognosis. But they voted for an election anyway, because to do anything else would be to invite ridicule.
That same dynamic still applies, not least because the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, hopes that just as at the last election he turned a 20-point gap between himself and Theresa May into a near draw, he can turn a 10-point gap between him and Johnson into electoral victory. But while the fact of an election before the year is out is certain, its timing is still up in the air.
The opponents of a no deal Brexit want to make sure that this week’s legislative victories have been fully secured before an election, because if the polls are right and the United Kingdom once again emerges from an election with no clear winner, a no-deal Brexit could still happen by accident while the various forces are negotiating who is best placed to form a government.
But Brexit opponents disagree on whether the election should happen now that their vote to force an extension has been secured in law—or only after Johnson has been forced to seek an extension. The argument for the former is largely based around the opposition parties’ fear of looking ridiculous by enforcing two months of stasis on the country rather than going straight to an election. The argument for the latter is that it will be politically humiliating for Johnson to seek an extension, having promised to take the UK out of the EU come what may—and that the delay creates further time for the Conservative party’s civil war to bubble out into the open.
That approach has risks, however. While British voters don’t agree on much about Brexit, they are united on wanting it to go away. In fact, the only Brexit proposition that has managed to command the support of more than half the public since the 2016 vote was a ComRes poll in which 57 percent of people said they didn’t care how the issue was resolved—as long as the matter was never spoken of again. Forcing two months of near-endless Brexit debate on the United Kingdom even before the mandatory 25 working days of a general election campaign are taken into account might well incline voters to back Johnson’s illusory promise of a swift end to the Brexit process.
Delay also means two months in which the government’s huge political advantages—control of Whitehall’s advertising budget and over day-to-day government spending—can be leveraged into turning the fate of the administration around. It’s those risks that divide the opposition parties. The SNP, which wants Scotland to break off from the United Kingdom and form an independent country, is the most gung-ho about an immediate election, partly because for it every outcome is win-win. If England returns Boris Johnson to Downing Street, while Scotland elects a majority of pro-independence MPs again, that would only underline the growing distance between the two countries. If the result is instead a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, the SNP hopes it can secure a fresh referendum on independence.
The calculation is more complex for Labour. Adding another broken promise to his account might further weaken Johnson. But it also might backfire against the opposition parties if they are seen to be the ones who forced him into it. There are no guarantees—and no take-backs if Corbyn picks the wrong option. It means that, as with Johnson’s children, we can say with certainty that there will be an election. We just can’t put an exact figure on it.