Inside Politics: Christmas countdown to a general election?

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WHILE Westminster perspired in the summer heatwave this week, many MPs were already thinking about winter. Talk around the Commons suggests the country is heading for the first December general election in nearly 100 years.

Boris Johnson demanded that every minister joining his new Government was unequivocally signed up to his October 31 “no ifs, or buts” deadline for leaving the EU. Many suspect Parliament will find some mechanism for preventing the new Prime Minister from delivering Brexit in that timescale – either by rejecting a new deal or blocking a no-deal departure from the bloc. “If Parliament says no to Brexit, a general election will be the only option,” one newly appointed Cabinet minister told me. “Given the time these things take to organise, I’m expecting a general election in December.”

Under the rules set by the Fixedterm Parliaments Act, an early general election could be held 25 working days after two-thirds of MPs vote in favour of a government motion triggering the poll. If the parliamentary battle over Brexit goes right down to deadline day, that timetable would dictate a December election. In the most dramatic scenario imaginable, MPs could pass the motion on October 31 to send the country to the polling stations on December 5.

The Parliamentary crunch point may come earlier, bringing forward polling day. Whatever the timing, Mr Johnson is already building an election-fighting team by recruiting key figures from the 2016 Vote Leave campaign to his staff.

Senior Tories are already discussing how to neutralise Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party if parliamentary deadlock forces the Prime Minister to seek an electoral mandate for a no-deal Brexit.

“We can’t have a pact with Farage. You deny Tory voters in some constituencies a Conservative candidate at a general election.That would be the end of us as a national party. But we could have some sort of less formal arrangement,” an outgoing Cabinet minister said.

Under such a plan, Mr Farage might endorse Brexiteer Conservative candidates in return for the Tories effectively standing down their activists in Labour seats where Brexit Party candidates have a chance of winning. Other senior Tories argue that the combined threat of the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems will do far more damage to Labour than the Tories.

“We thought very carefully about doing a deal with Ukip in 2015,” said a Tory campaign veteran. “Ukip got four million votes at that election, so there was a strong case for that approach. But we calculated that we could win without a pact and went on to win a Tory majority. We can do that again.”

Mr Johnson’s aides will be closely studying opinion polls over the next few days to see the impact of his arrival in Downing Street on Tory support. Those figures will ultimately determine whether going to the voters is worth the risk. But the very threat of a general election could force dozens of Labour MPs to think seriously about whether to collude with parliamentary attempts at sabotaging Mr Johnson’s Brexit plans.

Many Labour MPs looked queasy at the Prime Minister’s ferocious onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn at his first Commons appearance in his new job on Thursday. “Labour are terrified of a Boris versus Corbyn election campaign,” one Tory MP told me, adding: “Perhaps the thought of an election might just concentrate a few minds.”

If Mr Johnson does find a way of delivering Brexit on time by Halloween, many Tories are convinced he will go to the country by next May to capitalise on his success and exploit Mr Corbyn’s flawed leadership.

Whatever the electoral timetable, Labour MPs have been put on notice that winter is coming.

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