Boris Johnson is preparing to push for a pre-Christmas general election after talks with Labour ended without a breakthrough on a timetable for parliament to pass his Brexit deal.
The prime minister told the House of Commons that he still believes leaving the EU on 31 October with an agreement is in the country’s best interests and said he intended to “press ahead” with trying to get his deal passed.
But aides made clear that the PM is ready to go for an election if the European Union offers a lengthy Brexit extension to the end of January.
One Downing Street source said: “At that point, we know what will always happen. This broken parliament will always vote for delay, rather than a deal. Therefore, if parliament is unwilling to vote for a deal, then we will have to get to a general election.”
However, Mr Johnson’s route to a general election remains unclear, as Labour signalled it will continue to resist going to the country until the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal is off the table, not only for October but also for January.
If the Commons triggered an early poll by giving the necessary two-thirds majority to a election motion tabled by the prime minister, Mr Johnson would still retain the power to choose the date for the ballot – potentially allowing him to delay election day until after no-deal has happened.
“One of the worries about the situation is the control of the date by the executive and the prime minister,” said a senior Labour source.
“What we are trying to avoid is any kind of shenanigans on the government side – any kind of moving of the goalposts – which would allow a no-deal crash-out. So long as that’s nailed down, we will support an election.”
If Labour will not back an election motion, Mr Johnson’s only other options would be to encourage an opposition party such as the SNP to table a vote of no confidence or to pass a one-line bill overturning the provisions of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
But veteran former Tory cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke, now sitting as an independent, predicted opposition parties would pounce on the chance to amend such a bill to lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
With a five-week campaign required by law, Mr Johnson is fast running out of time to call an election for 12 December - the latest date thought possible for a 2019 poll.
European Council president Donald Tusk told the PM in a phone call this morning that he is advising leaders of the remaining 27 EU states to approve the request sent by Mr Johnson to Brussels on Saturday, which requested a delay to 31 January with the option of cutting the extension short if a deal is ratified.
It is not yet clear when the EU will respond, though London expects a formal decision by the end of this week. A shorter extension of just a few weeks to allow time to ratify Mr Johnson’s deal – thought to be favoured by leaders including France’s Emmanuel Macron – might return Number 10’s focus onto completing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which passed its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday.
In talks in Mr Johnson’s Commons office this morning, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour chief whip Nick Brown offered to agree a “reasonable” timetable – understood to be in the region of 28 days – for scrutiny of legislation to ratify the PM’s deal, after MPs on Tuesday rejected plans to railroad it through in just three days.
But the PM and senior aide Dominic Cummings are understood have accused Labour of wanting more delay in the hope of forcing a second EU referendum – and a Scottish independence referendum – in 2020.
A Downing Street source said there was “no meeting of minds”, and no further talks are expected.
Speaking at PMQs, Mr Corbyn uged Mr Johnson to “accept that parliament should have the necessary time to improve on this worse-than-terrible treaty”.
But the PM retorted: “I find it peculiar that he now wants this bill back, because he voted against it last night and he whipped his entire Labour Party against it”.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said the meeting amounted to “yet more clear proof that Jeremy Corbyn wants to deliver Brexit”.
“Yesterday, Boris Johnson’s deal passed because 19 Labour MPs walked through the lobby to vote for a Brexit deal that would be bad for our NHS, bad for our economy and bad for our environment,” said Ms Swinson.
“It seems that Jeremy Corbyn has thrown Boris Johnson another lifeline this morning, as six white men met to discuss pushing through a Brexit deal which will wreck our country.
“Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexiteer, and Remainers won’t forget if a shady backroom deal between Johnson and Corbyn helps to deliver Brexit.”
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