Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Declining an election makes Labour look a scared Opposition

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So having demanded a general election for two years, it appears that Jeremy Corbyn's party may have got cold feet on the idea.

Opposition rejects chance to win office, is the latest crazy development in UK politics - a curious new strategy from a party supposedly desperate to replace this government as soon as possible.

Labour's approach does make some sense. It could claim a double victory of sorts, defeating Boris Johnson's election call and his no-deal Brexit strategy.

The Opposition plus Conservative rebels have the numbers to block an election and an EU exit. Without a definite commitment from Boris Johnson to hold an election in October, Labour would be taking a huge risk in voting for a contest.

The Prime Minister would likely stall the contest until November. We would then have a fait accompli election, taking place in the very different context of Brexit having taken place - almost certainly without a deal.

Nonetheless, for Labour, ducking an election because the Prime Minister might delay the date only postpones the party's appointment with reality.

It is logical for Labour to avoid fighting a battle on the date of the enemy's choosing. It is also reasonable to keep the UK in the EU for as long as possible.

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But what is the party going to do when we get to November - or beyond - if Boris Johnson still wants an election?

Would Labour continue to eschew an election and seek a further block on a no-deal Brexit? Rinse and repeat? But for how long?

Labour, aided by other parties and Conservative rebels, has enough parliamentary power to reduce the Prime Minister to being in office but not in power. But Labour cannot, for much longer, decline the chance to attain that power.

Given Corbyn's endless exhortations that the country needs a contest, Labour would soon risk becoming a laughing stock. An Opposition continually declining an election looks a very scared Opposition. Ultimately if Labour is serious about blocking Brexit - and doubts linger over Corbyn's attitude - it is going to have to win an election. And there's not much polling evidence that it's going to happen.

Beyond the rhetoric and bluster, Labour lacks confidence.

A November post-Brexit contest offers advantages and disadvantages for Labour.

Immediate chaos from a no-deal departure, independent rebel candidates and divided local associations could spell disaster for the Conservatives. But at least the PM could go to the country on a platform of having delivered Brexit.

He could gamble on Brexit weariness across the nation. Who wants to reverse Brexit so quickly? Would it even be possible? Alternatively, a November (or later) pre-Brexit election would have big risks for both main parties. Johnson would look weak. His much-vaunted promise that the UK was leaving the EU by October 31 regardless would lie in tatters.

This could be turned into strength for the PM only if the public is enraged by another delay and blames the interminable process on Labour. The government might find a device to trigger an election anyway.

Johnson could offer a solemn undertaking, with judicial consequences if breached, that he would not delay an election beyond October 14, making it harder for Labour to say no.

The government could 'no-confidence' itself, a move the DUP would back. We might see the farcical situation in which most Conservatives declare they have no confidence in their own government, backed by their DUP allies, while pro-EU Conservatives, this week's rebels, say they do have confidence, in an attempt to thwart an election.

Another bizarre option is for the government to vote against an extension to EU membership at the EU Council in October, regardless of the UK Parliament's instructions. All ridiculous scenarios? Utterly. But such are the extraordinary times in which we live, any might happen.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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