Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street and declaimed: “I don’t want an election, you don’t want an election.” But the subtext was clear: if parliament ties the prime minister’s hands on Brexit this week, a snap poll is on its way.
Mr Johnson knows a weary British public do not want another general election — it would be their third in under five years — but the prime minister has pencilled in a poll on October 14 if MPs defeat him on Brexit over the next two days.
“There are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay,” he said. In other words, if MPs pass an emergency bill this week blocking a no-deal exit on October 31 and forcing him to put off Brexit, he will call a general election.
The decision to threaten an election was taken at Mr Johnson’s Chequers country retreat on Sunday, where close advisers and whips met for a lamb curry lunch. It was confirmed by an emergency cabinet meeting at 4.45pm on Monday.
Mr Johnson’s team concluded that faced with an apparently implacable group of Tory rebels determined to stop the prime minister’s Brexit strategy, the best approach was to go on the attack.
Rather than engage with the rebels, led by former chancellor Philip Hammond, Mr Johnson abruptly cancelled a meeting with about 15 Tories who are backing the anti-no deal legislation. Instead, he told them they would be sacked.
His decision to try to face down the Tory rebels is a high-risk strategy, but those close to Mr Johnson were confident that if parliament blocked “the will of the people” then the prime minister would triumph at the ballot box against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“Sitting around is pointless,” said one. “The worst that can happen is that it blows up into an election against Corbyn. I’d back the Vote Leave and Boris to win that.” The votes in the Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday will be a huge test of nerve.
The threat to Tory rebels from the prime minister was clear: vote down my strategy and you will be out of the party and out of a job. For Labour MPs in Leave areas there was a similar threat: vote down my Brexit strategy and face the wrath of the voters.
While Theresa May’s election gambit failed in 2017 after she turned out to be an extremely weak candidate, many of Mr Johnson’s advisers have seen the prime minister in action on the stump, first as London mayor and then in the 2016 EU referendum.
The strategy in Number 10 is to transform the Conservatives into the Brexit party, thereby rendering Nigel Farage’s own party redundant, and to run an election campaign as “the people versus parliament”.
Mr Johnson, who saw Mrs May throw away her parliamentary majority in 2017, has publicly and privately been cautious about the idea of an early election, mindful that if he loses his tenure as premier will go down as one of the shortest in history.
During the day on Monday, government insiders said there were “different strands of thinking” in Number 10, confirming nervousness about the move. Mr Johnson’s spokesman insisted: “He always says he doesn’t want there to be an election.”
The threat to deselect Mr Hammond and a series of other Tory big beasts only seemed to harden their resolve to inflict a defeat on Mr Johnson, although Number 10 believed the threat would burn off some of the younger rebels.
The former chancellor was among about 20 Tory MPs, including former deputy prime minister David Lidington, former business secretary Greg Clark and former justice secretary David Gauke, willing to vote with Labour to stop a no-deal exit.
But Mr Johnson’s proposed purge of Tory grandees is indicative of a revolutionary spirit in Number 10, embodied in Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser and head of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign.
A source close to Tory MPs opposed to no-deal said: “It’s a bit rich for the prime minister to point the finger at colleagues who plan to defy the party whip — colleagues who voted for a deal three times — while he voted with Jeremy Corbyn to inflict the two biggest parliamentary defeats on a government in British history.”
“The prime minister seems to be doing everything he can to bring about an election, while claiming it’s the last thing he wants.”
At 5.30pm the counterblast came, as the “Rebel Alliance” published the bill intended to halt a no-deal exit, requiring Mr Johnson to seek a delay to Brexit until January 31 if he could not get a new agreement. The battle lines had been drawn.
For Labour, the prospect of an early election was seized upon with public enthusiasm by Mr Corbyn, even though former Labour prime minister Tony Blair said it was “an elephant trap” being laid by Mr Johnson.
Mr Blair urged Mr Corbyn to oppose an election which would have Brexit at its heart, arguing that Labour should instead argue for a new EU referendum to settle the issue before country goes to the polls.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Government, Mr Blair said the “brutally clear” challenge in an election is that the opposition vote would be split and “under our system, that delivers a comfortable Tory majority”.
Mr Blair’s calculation is the same one made by Mr Cummings: if the Tories scoop up the 52 per cent Leave vote, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens will be scrabbling for the remaining 48 per cent.
In a surreal end to the day, Tory MPs gathered for drinks and canapés in the Downing Street garden in the late summer sun. Mrs May came in through the backdoor, a baleful reminder to Mr Johnson of how electoral gambles can go spectacularly wrong.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne