An extension to the Article 50 period now seems inevitable. There was never any chance of a withdrawal agreement being reached and Johnson was never serious about trying to get one, nor was the EU going to bend for anything that made things worse than the May deal from their perspective. The government is pretending it has a way of getting around the Benn Act since they want to maximise the notion that the extension has been done very much against their will.
When the extension is in place, the next argument for the opposition to have is what to do now. Some credence is being given to the idea that opposition MPs could look to go for another EU referendum instead of a general election. There are several problems with this possible plan.
One, in order to do it, the present government would have to be brought down and another government that was favourable to the idea of another referendum happening taking its place. Corbyn has made it clear he will not step aside; several key blocs from the opposition will not put Corbyn into Number 10. The reasons for them not wanting to do this are sensible, and Remainers who complain about this should think about it in more detail. Putting Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman or whomever into Number 10 is pretty much without risk. Here are people at the end of their careers who could be trusted to act as temporary custodians of the nation in order to carry out the collective will of those who have put them there. With Corbyn, it’s a different story. He clearly wants to be the prime minister – why else would he be the leader of the opposition? – and the post of prime minister comes with a lot more power than a lot of well meaning Remainers have stopped to consider. Corbyn could fill all sorts of posts with cronies if he wanted to, for instance. Now, maybe you trust Corbyn not to do this, but I don’t see why you feel so sure. If he’s going to be looking to solidify his stay in Number 10 with a general election, I don’t see why he wouldn’t want to use the position of prime minister as much as possible to shape Britain in the way that he wishes as soon as he was residing on Downing Street. Plus, he holds the Labour whip, which would unbalance this coalition of the opposition parties in a way a much more neutral individual would not.
I don’t see how without a change of government you could have a second EU referendum. There would be money involved, which would require a minister’s approval. It is just too large an undertaking for the opposition, however united in this task they may be (and that is open to question as well, at least over the period necessary), to execute.
Like it or not, I think we need a general election. I understand the argument that it very well might not resolve the Brexit issue – on balance of probability, it probably won’t. I also understand Remainers fears of a Tory victory, or a much more Leaver oriented parliament emerging. But stop and think about these arguments for a moment. If you want a referendum, you still need Remain to win. If Remain can’t win a general election, it will struggle to win a referendum. I can hear the arguments against what I’ve just said already: Johnson could get a majority on 35% of the vote when he’d need 50% to win a referendum; getting the Remain vote out would be more clear cut in a referendum scenario. But for all of that, I still say: given where we are, with Boris Johnson as prime minister, holding onto a majority of -45, we need an election. There is almost no way around that, unless Corbyn is willing to step aside and let someone else form a government and there is no reason to think that he will, or from his own perspective, should. Like it or not, a general election seems unavoidable.