Boris Johnson has won support for a general election in December. The SNP, Lib Dems, and finally Labour came on board once the prime minister scrapped his bid to secure passage of his Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the House of Commons. The prime minister has been forced by Parliament to break his vow that the UK would leave the European Union on 31 October, and has now chosen to go to the polls with Brexit not yet delivered.
The government will want this election to be largely about Brexit – and many predict that it will be. The consequences for Brexit depend on the outcome of this vote – and three and a half years since the referendum, every option is still a possibility.
Johnson will argue that only he can be relied on to deliver Brexit. He will hope that this “people v Parliament” narrative – and the threat that losing the election will lead to Brexit not happening at all – will defang the Brexit Party and spook Brexit-leaning Labour voters into switching allegiance.
But his election strategy is risky. He has not delivered Brexit, contrary to his pledges, and Nigel Farage’s party may take crucial votes from him if they do not do an electoral pact. The party knows it may well lose seats to Lib Dems in Remain-leaning areas, and to the SNP in Scotland, where they lack a Scottish Conservative leader. The question is whether Johnson can compensate with more seats won through an appeal to Labour Leave voters, particularly in the northeast – a risky move, as Theresa May found in 2017.
If the strategy does work, a Johnson majority would make the passage of his Brexit legislation more straightforward. The shift in traditional Conservative territory, plus the retirement of moderate Tory figures such as Justine Greening, Oliver Letwin and Amber Rudd, would mean that Conservative MPs were overall Eurosceptic, and likely to steer talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU in that direction.
Even a minority Tory government would give Johnson a good claim to demand Parliamentary support for his Brexit deal, but relying on a smaller party could pose problems for both passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and future talks. The DUP (who now realise that Theresa May’s deal offered them much more) would demand changes to the deal, but a reliance on any Brexit Party MPs would pull in the opposite direction.
He might get his bill through in January but then find himself staring down the prospect of no deal in December 2020.
Labour’s proposal to strike a new, as yet undefined, deal – in itself a test of the EU’s near-exhausted willingness to negotiate further – and then hold a referendum on that deal against “Remain” may prove to be a complicated sell on the doorstep. The split in the Labour leadership between those supporting Remain and those, like Jeremy Corbyn, with long-standing criticisms of the EU, makes it hard to anticipate the party's future position even if it won a majority. However, whatever the deal it struck with the EU, it might still then be led to revoke Article 50 if a referendum produced a majority for Remain.
If it were a minority government, the Lib Dems and the SNP could have a significant influence on the approach, demanding a vote on Scottish independence or electoral reform as the price for support. With many Labour MPs vehemently opposed to a second public vote, a lack of party discipline could leave prime minister Corbyn repeating Theresa May’s inability to secure enough backbench support to make any progress.
Chances of no deal under this scenario are slight, although not zero. Labour’s position is to agree a deal within three months and ahead of a referendum, meaning that no deal would not be an option in a public vote.
That said, there is always a possibility that Corbyn and his negotiating team fail to agree a new deal with the EU. In which case, after a year of meaningful votes, indicative votes and, finally, a general election, a no-deal Brexit will be back on the table – or Labour might see itself pinching a flagship Lib Dem policy and revoking Article 50 altogether.