Boris Johnson wins vote to secure snap poll at fourth time of asking
Rowena Mason Deputy political editor – The Guardian
MPs voted on Tuesday night to finally resolve their Brexit deadlock by calling a general election, setting the stage for a 12 December contest that could be the most unpredictable in a generation.
Boris Johnson won his fourth bid to go to the polls by 438 to 20 after Jeremy Corbyn declared that Labour would support an election as a “once-in-a-generation chance to transform our country”. The pre-Christmas vote will be the first December poll since 1923.
The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party abstained, after their preferred day for it to be held – 9 December – was rejected. Almost half of all Labour MPs were absent or voted against the legislation in a sign of unhappiness about a snap election, although some blamed a mix-up by the whips for their failure to attend.
Parliament will dissolve next Wednesday for a short campaign of five weeks, so long as the House of Lords passes Johnson’s legislation as expected in the coming days.
Corbyn set the stage for his campaign by calling on voters to kick out Johnson’s Conservatives who think they are “born to rule”, while Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, said it was “our best chance to elect a government to stop Brexit”.
Speaking earlier in the House of Commons, Johnson argued that a “new and revitalised” parliament was needed to take Britain out of the European Union. “We are left with no choice but to go to the country to break free from this impasse,” he told MPs.
But he later struck a cautious note, telling a backbench meeting of Tory MPs that it would be “a tough election but we will do the best we can”. He told them he had not wanted an election but was forced to seek one because Labour would have “sliced and diced” his Brexit legislation beyond recognition.
In a move to unite his party, the prime minister decided to readmit 10 of the 21 MPs he expelled last month for defying his Brexit plan.
The major battle lines of the campaign will be drawn along on the subject of Brexit, after Johnson failed to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October “do or die” as he had promised.
The Conservatives will campaign to get Brexit done by pushing through Johnson’s deal, while Labour is promising a second referendum to let the people resolve the EU question.
The Brexit party will try to outgun the Tories by arguing for a no-deal Brexit, while the Lib Dems will seek to attract remain voters from Labour by pledging to revoke article 50.
Although parliament voted decisively for an election, many backbenchers in the two biggest parties are extremely nervous about going to the polls at such a politically volatile time and an unusual time of year.
The Tories under Johnson are about 10 points ahead of Labour in the average polls, roughly half the lead that Theresa May had before she led her party to a disastrous result that saw her lose her majority.
Labour has been deeply split for months about whether to back an election or a second referendum first. In a sign of reluctance on the backbenches, more than 100 Labour MPs abstained and 11 voted against the motion. Those rejecting an election included strongly pro-remain campaigners such as Margaret Beckett, Peter Kyle, David Lammy and Owen Smith, who later said he would be standing down.
Speaking earlier in the Commons, Corbyn confirmed that the party would back a poll after rejecting one on three previous occasions, after getting confirmation that the EU had granted an extension to article 50.
“I’m ready for it, we’re ready for it,” Corbyn said. “Because we want to be able to say to the people of this country there is an alternative to austerity. There is an alternative to inequality. There is an alternative to sweetheart trade deals with Donald Trump.”
Polling experts have said the result is likely to be hard to gauge, with the British Election Survey suggesting a third of voters have switched parties in the last two elections.
The Tories will be targeting leave-voting Labour marginal constituencies in Wales, the Midlands and the north of England, while defending areas of the south-west against the Lib Dems and its seats in Scotland against the SNP.
Labour will be hoping to build on its successes in 2017 at picking up marginal seats from the Tories, especially in remain-voting urban areas. Corbyn’s campaign will also be bolstered by the leftwing activists in Momentum, who are planning to mobilise tens of thousands of people to knock on doors in marginal seats and launch a “viral video response unit” to reach millions online.
The Lib Dems have been speaking to the Greens and Plaid Cymru about maximising the chances of pro-remain parties, by standing single “Stop Brexit” candidates in certain seats. However, the number of these is likely to be limited.
Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at the University of Bristol, said the 12 December election was “likely to pose key challenges to both the Labour and Conservative parties, both of whom need to improve on their performance in terms of seats, while simultaneously unlikely to match their 2017 vote share”.
“Who manages to hold on to the larger part of the 2017 votes is likely to form the next government. Will this be the Brexit election 2017 never quite managed to be? The Liberal Democrats and the Brexit party will be pushing hard to make it so, while Labour are likely to want to talk about almost anything else,” she said.
In its remaining days of business, the government is planning to hold a debate on the Grenfell Tower fire report and rush through legislation relating to Northern Ireland’s budget. However, it is still unclear whether a vote on the new Commons Speaker will be able to take place on Monday, as many MPs will be heading back to campaign immediately and are likely to be reluctant to return.
The candidates for the job are split as to whether to press ahead, with Lindsay Hoyle, the favourite, and Meg Hillier, pushing for it to happen, while Chris Bryant, Harriet Harman, Rosie Winterton and Eleanor Laing, would prefer a new parliament to decide. John Bercow, the outgoing Speaker, could decide to defer his decision to stand down and allow the new parliament to elect his successor.