Boris Johnson declared on Tuesday he wants a December election to end the “paralysis” at Westminster and to deliver Brexit; for some Conservative MPs it is a high-stakes gamble that could end up producing the opposite result.
Tory MPs are haunted by Theresa May’s 2017 election, which was supposed to create a House of Commons majority to allow her to push through a hard form of Brexit. Instead the Tories went backwards and Brexit became a quagmire.
“It’s possible this is the moment he threw Brexit away,” one former Conservative minister said. “I think we will end up with another hung parliament.” Rory Stewart, former Tory leadership contender, agreed: “It will be a repeat of what happened in 2017.”
Ken Clarke, former Tory chancellor, said of Mr Johnson: “Of course he could lose Brexit. That’s why the Liberal Democrats and the SNP want an election now, they want to stop Brexit.”
If Mr Johnson fails to secure a House of Commons majority, there is a risk that a coalition of Labour, Scottish National party and the Lib Dems could combine to frustrate Brexit, probably by holding another referendum with Britain remaining in the EU one of the options.
Inside Downing Street, Mr Johnson’s team concluded that they had no choice other than to push for an early election to end the debilitating political stalemate at Westminster, but even behind the polished black door there is a sense of nervousness.
“Of course it’s a gamble,” said one senior adviser to the prime minister. “But it’s the least worst option.” If Mr Johnson’s election gambit backfires, Tory MPs will be asking whether he could have taken a different route.
Mr Johnson and his advisers had always favoured holding an election once Brexit had been delivered. It was the logic that drove his ill-fated “do or die” promise to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.
The politics were simple. If Mr Johnson could deliver Brexit against the odds, he could run a Christmas election campaign as the hero of Leave voters who was now best placed to reunite the country with a One Nation form of Conservatism.
Better still, Mr Johnson could neutralise Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and hobble the Lib Dems, the pro-EU party that threatened the Tories in Remain areas by promising to overturn Brexit.
That plan effectively died on Tuesday when MPs voted against Mr Johnson’s motion to railroad his Brexit deal through parliament in a matter of days, effectively removing any hope of a pre-Christmas election.
“We knew at that point we had a problem,” one Tory insider said. “There was a sense that no matter what we did, parliament would always choose delay.”
Mr Johnson feared that MPs would wage a winter parliamentary war against his Brexit deal, amending the legislation needed to put it into effect in a series of parliamentary ambushes, sapping his party’s morale and undermining his authority.
Julian Smith, Northern Ireland secretary, was among Tories who argued that Mr Johnson should not give up that easily and should carry on trying to pass his Withdrawal Agreement bill, which received its second reading with a 30 majority.
Philip Hammond, another former Tory chancellor, told the BBC on Tuesday: “The idea that now we would use our precious time to halt all of this process for five or six weeks and go out and have a general election frankly appals me.”
Mr Clarke, who like Mr Hammond now sits as an independent Conservative MP, said the government was itself to blame for delaying Brexit, not parliament. He said Mr Johnson was determined to set up a “people versus parliament” election that was “pure Trump”.
But Mr Johnson’s colleagues insist that “the vast majority of people in Number 10” supported the idea of an early election, fearing that parliament could ultimately delay Brexit so long that another extension beyond January 31 could be needed.
At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday more than one minister said that Mr Johnson could not afford a “Gordon Brown moment” — a reference to the former Labour prime minister’s fatal decision to abort a snap election in 2007, which he might have won.
Winning a 2019 election could still be a struggle for Mr Johnson, given that the Tories are likely to lose seats in Scotland to the SNP and in the south to the Liberal Democrats, leaving them having to take several dozen Labour seats to win a majority.
“Most of us are up for it,” said Gary Streeter, a veteran Tory MP and former whip. “I think we’ll lose 20 and gain 60.” But it is an election that could be decided by very fine margins.
To remove one obstacle, Mr Johnson restored the party whip to 10 of the 21 Tory MPs who were thrown out of the parliamentary party for opposing the government’s Brexit strategy, allowing them to stand as Conservative candidates at the election.
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A Downing Street official said: “I think what has been very clear is there has been a ladder to climb for some of those 21 — some have taken the decision to climb that ladder, others have not.”
Mr Johnson would rather have the likes of former business secretary Greg Clark defending his Tunbridge Wells seat, not splitting the Tory vote by running as an independent.
Veterans of Mrs May’s 2017 campaign say that Mr Johnson will at least not repeat the same mistakes as his predecessor: for example launching a flawed manifesto without prior scrutiny.
But one former member of Mrs May’s cabinet said: “There are similarities between then and now. The prime minister is very popular, there’s a slightly hubristic mood. We won’t make the same mistakes — but there are always other mistakes you can make.”