Perhaps the strangest unintended consequence of Boris Johnson’s decision to seek a snap election is that Jeremy Corbyn could be received at this month’s Labour party conference as the country’s prime minister. This would be quite a role reversal for the pair of duelling politicians. Mr Johnson’s misplaced optimism in his powers of persuasion would have meant that he risks being, at some 48 days, the shortest-lived occupant of No 10. A leftwing firebrand would have replaced him. No one would be more surprised than Mr Corbyn, who did not believe he could even be leader of the Labour party when he ran for the job in 2015.
This outcome is unlikely but not impossible. The reason it has become so is Mr Johnson’s rash and unwise pledge in front of the TV cameras not to request in any circumstances an extension to European Union membership beyond the current date of departure on 31 October. Britain would leave the EU by then, “do or die”. With a cabinet in thrall to a ruinous hard-Brexit agenda and negotiations for a new withdrawal agreement with Brussels going nowhere, Mr Johnson is prepared to risk the country’s economic stability by crashing out of the EU. This has been too much for a large chunk of moderate Tories who have either been hounded out of the Conservative party or decided, like Mr Johnson’s younger brother, that they did not want to be footsoldiers in a no-deal revolution.
On Monday the law of the land will be that the prime minister must obtain at next month’s European council meeting a delay that would defer the country’s departure from the EU to 31 January 2020. The prime minister says he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than do so, though it would be unwise for this country’s leader not to uphold the rule of law. The only way out for Mr Johnson is an election where he will aim to outflank on the right Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and campaign to repeal the law that delays a no-deal Brexit.
The prime minister would like to go to the country on 15 October. But an early election is not in Mr Johnson’s gift. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it would require the support of two-thirds of all MPs. The Commons has already rejected this approach because parliamentarians do not believe Mr Johnson can be trusted with the timing of a poll date. It is an elephant trap. Mr Johnson’s government could also roll the dice on Monday and, in topsy-turvy times, call a vote of no confidence in itself. This could be won by a simple majority vote. An election would follow if opposition parties could not form an alternative government after 14 days. If such a vote was won on Monday, it would see a fortnight for a new government to emerge, and if one did not then parliament would be dissolved. The 25-day period that would follow means an election on 29 October – not enough time to stop the default no-deal Brexit. However, if the “rebel alliance” can coalesce on 23 September their leader would be prime minister. Mr Corbyn could fit that role.
Mr Johnson could achieve the same by resigning and telling the Queen to send for Labour’s leader to replace him. The prime minister appears to favour this option because it might give him a poll, without a parliamentary vote, before 31 October.It is a paradox that resignation is Mr Johnson’s ace card. If he were not to play it, then he risks the opposition parties leaving him in Downing Street until 19 October, the date he is legally mandated to ask the EU for a Brexit delay. If he didn’t do that, Mr Johnson would then be forced out of office in the most ignominious of circumstances, and a new prime minister could hold an election, but with Brexit deferred until January. The alliance of opposition parties needs quickly to answer the question that has so far eluded them: who can they unite under? If they do not, Mr Johnson will get his early election and the issue will be Brexit. For the country, the stakes have never been so high and the chances of getting it right so low.