Brexit: is a snap election part of Boris Johnson's strategy?
FT editor Lionel Barber and Whitehall correspondent Sebastian Payne on how the UK government can respond to plans among parliamentarians to head off a no-deal split between the UK and EU
Filmed by Nicola Stansfield and edited by Richard Topping
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Boris Johnson says he doesn't want a general election, and he does want a deal with the European Union on Brexit. Can both be true? Here with me to discuss this is Sebastian Payne, our political reporter.
So I think Boris Johnson doesn't want to be seen to be having a general election although, in fact, he knows it's quite inevitable. Ever since he went into Downing Street just a month ago he had a working majority of one to three. And when you've got numbers that small there's no way that you can really do anything.
And there's so many splits within the Conservative party, from BrexiterS, who actively want no deal, to Remainers on the other side, who really want something like Theresa May's deal, or potentially, an even softer Brexit.
So although Mr Johnson came out this week and said no, I don't want an election, by Wednesday or Thursday he may well have publicly changed his mind.
So let's just unpack this. Boris Johnson says that he's committed to leaving the European Union by October 31st. Is there any possibility of a general election before that date? Or is the likelihood that it will come afterwards?
Well, this is what senior people in the government are saying, that if parliament votes to take control of the Brexit process, as they did under Theresa May, when they forced her to delay departure twice.
And taking control means another delay.
Exactly. It would be saying to Mr Johnson, we're going to force you to go back to the EU and ask for yet another extension. Senior people in the government say if that happens, Mr Johnson will slap down a resolution to dissolve parliament and have an election on October the 14th. That's in about five weeks' time.
So in theory that would happen all before the next EU Council and before Brexit's happened.
But there are people who don't trust Mr Johnson, because he could say that to parliament...
I wonder why.
There may be some record that people don't entirely say that he does what he promises to. But Mr Johnson has to hop on a plane up to Balmoral and ask the Queen to dissolve parliament. He could potentially change that date till after Brexit and people around the prime minister have said our ideal date for an election would be the days after Brexit, early November.
But the fact is, he's insisting, and senior people in the government are saying it would be October the 14th. So yes, an election before Brexit. And that election would be a rerun of the referendum.
Now let's come to a benign scenario, whereby Mr Johnson, out of a magic hat, reaches a deal with the European Union on Brexit leaving terms at the summit, which I believe is on...
The 17th. Then he would be in a very strong position, wouldn't he?
Well then he'd have to run at breakneck speed to get that deal through parliament, because he's made it his raison d'etre that we will leave on the 31st of October. Even if there's a deal he will not countenance a delay.
So if, somehow, the Irish border backstop disappears and these alternative solutions emerge, parliament would have to sit morning, noon, and night, weekend, to get that deal through in time.
But isn't this semantics? I mean, if he gets a deal at the European summit which actually assure an agreement between the European Union, he can say, look. It's signed, sealed. It's just not quite delivered.
Well, that deal as well, let us forget, will be Theresa May's deal, with some tweaks. It'll smell, sound, and feel like the deal that was voted through three times before. Because we know, from the EU, it's not going to fundamentally change.
But what Mr Johnson wants is some tweaks here and there, to make it sound and look like a new deal. Yes, he can say it's all done. But a lot of people in parliament, and particularly the Conservative party, won't be convinced.
Now, I'm going to put you on the spot here, Sebastian. A general election, what chances are there of Boris Johnson winning a majority? Or are we likely to see a deadlock, as we have at the moment?
A deadlock is very likely. If you look at the opinion polls and election experts they essentially say that we get a result not too dissimilar to what we've got now. Because the Conservatives would lose a lot of their seats in Scotland, to the Scottish National party. They'd lose a lot of their seats in the more Remainier parts of the country. The Liberal Democrats would pick up those metropolitan liberal seats that were won under David Cameron.
But then, on the flip side, they would pick up some Brexit supporting seats in the north and the Midlands. So the Conservatives may end up quite like where they are now.
But the key factor is Nigel Farage, the man who scares the Tories more than anything else. Because if he runs, and runs on a very hard Brexit platform, saying that it's no-deal, that's all that matters. And he will take away the Conservative vote, and potentially let in even more Liberal Democrats in the south-west, say, and even more Labour seats in the north and what have you.
So really, I think it's very hard to see how the Conservatives are going to get through this. But the campaigns are very volatile. We remember 2017 when Theresa May went in with a commanding position, and came out having lost everything.
So an election is really going to depend on what happens to the Brexit party, and what Brexit message Boris Johnson runs on.
And finally, what happens to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party, particularly after our three part series this week on the Corbyn revolution, which sets out vast spending plans and a wholesale reversal of the Thatcher revolution.
Thank you, Sebastian.