LONDON — MPs in the U.K. parliament have opted to roll the dice and put their faith in the electorate.
After months of parliamentary stalemate, a bill paving the way for a December general election — the first since 1923 — overcame its first major hurdle on Tuesday night. MPs backed an election by a huge margin with 438 votes in favor and just 20 against.
Each of the U.K.’s main political parties are banking on a national ballot to unblock the Brexit paralysis in their favor — but by throwing the electoral dice in the air, they are all taking a gamble that the opposite Brexit outcome could come to pass.
For opposition parties the opinion polls suggest Boris Johnson is on course to secure his long-craved parliamentary majority, and with it the wherewithal to get his Brexit deal through the U.K. parliament before the new Brexit deadline of January 31.
But if his campaign blunders, Johnson could fall short of a majority and leave the door open to his opponents, who are set to fight on a promise to soften Brexit and hold a fresh referendum, or even halt the U.K.’s departure from the European Union altogether.
“It’s time for the country to come together and go forward. It will be a tough election but we will do the best we can” — Boris Johnson, UK prime minister
One thing is now clear, it is all but certain that Brexit will not happen this year. Johnson has pledged not to bring his Withdrawal Agreement Bill back to the house if MPs back an election. And there would not be enough time after a December 12 poll to push through the legislation before Christmas.
The febrile political atmosphere is such though that the outcome of the election is highly uncertain. Chris Hanretty, professor of politics at Royal Holloway University of London, points out that support in the polls today does not necessarily translate to votes in December. “Voters are now more likely to switch parties than at any previous point in post-war British history,” he said.
Speaking to journalists after he had addressed Tory MPs at a meeting in Westminster on Tuesday night, the prime minister said: “It’s time for the country to come together and go forward. It will be a tough election but we will do the best we can.”
Brexit isn’t done
For all the swashbuckling rhetoric from the prime minister, some Tory MPs were privately voicing concerns on Tuesday about the leader’s pre-Christmas election push without having achieved Brexit.
“It is a big risk for the Conservatives,” one Tory MP said. “The prime minister should have pushed on with the Withdrawal Agreement Bill while he had the momentum of the deal, and support at second reading.”
A second Tory MP acknowledged the election push was “a little bit of a risk,” warning the party could lose a “bunch of seats in Scotland and a bunch of Remain seats.” He questioned if there would be a strong enough swing to the Conservatives in Leave-voting seats in the Midlands and north of England to combat the losses. But he said he was ultimately willing to trust the prime minister’s judgement. “I think Boris is a good bloke actually,” he added.
Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist Party’s chief whip, whose party propped up the Conservatives after Theresa May lost her majority in 2017, told POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast there was “every chance” the election could produce a government with either a small majority, or a hung parliament. The DUP could again be in a “pivotal position” in the House of Commons, he said.
Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly acknowledged the risk. “Every election is a gamble. If it’s not a gamble it’s not an election,” he said.
Cleansing the Tory party
For Johnson, the general election could provide the added advantage of creating a more obedient parliamentary party.
His majority fell to minus 45 after he removed the whip from 21 former Tory MPs who backed legislation forcing him to ask European leaders for a Brexit extension.
He restored the whip to 10 of those MPs on Tuesday night, following a meeting at which he told them they would have to pass his deal when parliament returned.
UK NATIONAL PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS
But there were still notable absences from the list, including the former Chancellor Philip Hammond, who told the BBC on Tuesday he feared Johnson’s team wanted a general election “to change the shape of the Conservative Party in parliament” and to “get rid of a cohort of MPs that it regards as not robust enough on this issue and to replace them with hardliners.”
Former Tory ministers Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, two of the main architects of parliamentary efforts to prevent no deal, are retiring, as is veteran pro-European Tory Ken Clarke and former Education Secretary Justine Greening, who endorsed the campaign for a second referendum.
Corbyn the campaigner
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had been against the December poll but was forced into a U-turn when he saw that a December election would almost certainly receive parliamentary backing even without his MPs’ votes, according to numerous Labour figures.
Opposition to a poll at a Shadow Cabinet meeting on Monday had faded when the same group met on Tuesday, according to one senior party official.
“There was a ‘we need to be on the front foot’ mentality,” the official said. Party Chair Ian Lavery and Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon were said to have argued strongly for an election.
In the end, 11 Labour MPs voted against an election in Tuesday’s vote. One Labour MP who abstained in the vote, who represents a marginal seat, said going to the polls was a “stupid idea.” He added: “I want to have a vote on a people’s vote. In the next parliament we definitely won’t pass it because the best polling I have seen is Bojo gets a majority government and we are screwed, so I’m going down dying. I might be a lone voice, but that is my position.”
But the feeling that Labour could no longer hold out was overriding. Another Labour MP in a marginal seat, who backed the election, said: “We’ve got to the stage where this is just silly and we can’t carry on forever more. It’s not what I want to happen. I think we just make ourselves look stupid if we stand in the way of an election.”
Staff members working for Labour MPs, many of whom are already are suffering from low morale, are not relishing the idea of trudging the streets in the cold and dark being abused by voters.
One offered an amended version of a quote from Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: “Theirs not to make reply. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and face five weeks in the freezing cold and pissing rain.”
Last chance to stop Brexit
But for the Liberal Democrats, who joined forces with the Scottish National Party to propose December 9 for the election — a move they say bounced Labour into voting for a snap poll — a Brexit election is seen as crucial to their prospects.
By framing the vote as the last chance to stop Brexit, they will aim to scoop up pro-Remain Labour and Tory voters
Tom Brake, the party’s Brexit spokesman, told Sky News on Tuesday morning: “Our main motivation for pushing for a general election was the real risk that a combination of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn would have seen the prime minister’s Withdrawal Agreement go through,” he said.
The SNP was also instrumental in forcing Labour’s hand. Riding high in the polls, the party did not want to miss the chance to go to the polls while conditions are favorable.
Alex Salmond, the SNP’s former leader, faces trial early next year on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault, which he denies. An election before Christmas will ensure voters go to the polls before potentially politically damaging details of the case hit the headlines, distracting from the party’s main messaging.
But for the SNP too there are risks. If Johnson wins, they could be blamed by Remainers north of the border for enabling Brexit.
For many though there was an air of resignation and inevitability about the vote. “It is whether you die in a ditch trying to fight against something that is inevitable. Carrying on with this futile argument ad infinitum is not in the best interests of the country,” said the pro-election Labour MP in the marginal seat. “There is a chance we could win,” he added.