While the Tories were in Manchester at their national conference this week, the opposition met to decide next moves. The choice to be made was do they try and bring forward the date on which Johnson has to ask the EU for an extension, or do they vote to bring the government down and replace it with a government of national unity. Neither were alighted on, with a tacit desire to see where everything goes next before the next move is made. The reasons for this are logical when broken down.
A lot of the ex-Tory MPs who have lost the whip want to wait until Johnson is seen to fail at getting a deal. This seems close to happening: the prime minister is putting forward a deal for the EU to consider that is a real stinker. So much so that it seems obviously designed to fail and for the blame to accrue to the European Union for its demise. This will happen relatively soon, after which, the opposition can unite around bringing the extension deadline forward if they so choose.
As for the government of national unity, there are several things to say. The ex-Tory MPs who have lost the whip are never going to put Corbyn into Number 10; the Lib Dems would commit political suicide by doing so. Yet Corbyn is emphatically ruling out letting someone else lead the charge, which is ironic given the only person who has any chance of politically gaining from a GNU led by Ken Clarke or Margaret Hodge or whomever either than Jeremy Corbyn is Jeremy Corbyn himself. A Conservative government is brought down on his whim, demonstrating his power; yet he isn’t the one who is asking for the extension, which is symbolically important. Corbyn has gone to great lengths to stop Labour becoming the Remain party, to the point of threatening to alienate his young base; what would be the point of all that if he’s the one going to Brussels to ask for an extension to the Article 50 period in the end? That would blow him out of the water with Leavers. Much better to have someone else do it, if it’s going to be done.
Except that I think Corbyn and his advisers have figured out that a GNU is a bad idea from their perspective anyhow, no matter who heads it. Its what Boris Johnson really wants to happen; in fact, his plans appear to hinge on a GNU happening. It’s his last roll of the dice. He is trying to antagonise opposition MPs into going for it; Number 10 meanwhile appears to be involved in a disinformation war, coming up with new and improved ways that the Benn Act that can legally be got round, all of them transparently false.
It is much better from a Labour point of view to allow Johnson to have to make a decision come the last third of October: try and get round the Benn Act in the courts, which will fail; resign and see what the opposition does then; just accept that he needs to ask for an extension. Any of those outcomes are better than letting Johnson off the hook by forming an alternative government that will feed into his narrative in the general election which will follow. That is true for all of the opposition parties with the possible exception of the SNP, for whom it doesn’t really matter either way.