Boris Johnson on Thursday threw down the gauntlet to Labour to vote for a snap election next week, but party leader Jeremy Corbyn appears increasingly likely to reject what he regards as a trap.
Some of Mr Corbyn’s senior aides have been keen to trigger an election as soon as possible, worried that Labour will look cowardly if it refuses to back an early poll.
But Mr Corbyn is increasingly sympathetic to Labour MPs — including shadow ministers — who do not want to have an election until after October 31, the scheduled date for Brexit.
These MPs fear that Mr Johnson could win an election on his preferred date of October 15, and then take Britain out of the EU without a deal.
This view is shared by the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Independent Group and some — if not all — Scottish National Party MPs.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the party was “consulting” on the dilemma of whether to co-operate with Mr Johnson’s push for an October election, adding he would prefer the date to be “later rather than sooner”.
Some Labour strategists believe the Tories would be damaged by a spike in support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party if Mr Johnson fails to fulfil his pledge to take the UK out of the EU by October 31, “do or die”.
An ICM poll suggests that support for the Brexit party would double from 9 per cent to 18 per cent if an election takes place after Halloween.
The poll, commissioned by Represent Us — which is pushing for a second Brexit referendum — found the Conservatives’ lead over Labour would evaporate in those circumstances.
The ICM poll suggests the Tories would beat Labour by 37 per cent against 30 per cent in an October election, while the two parties would be neck and neck on 28 per cent in a November poll.
Mr Corbyn has insisted countless times that he wants an election as soon as possible, although he said on Tuesday he would only back one once legislation supported by Labour and other opposition parties to prevent a no-deal Brexit on October 31 has been approved by parliament.
That is why Labour MPs were ordered to abstain when Mr Johnson forced a vote on Wednesday evening that sought MPs’ backing for a parliamentary motion about a snap election.
Under the terms of the 2011 fixed term parliaments act, Mr Johnson needed the support of two-thirds of MPs: 434 in total. He failed to pass this threshold.
But the legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit on Halloween is expected to receive royal assent on Monday after the government agreed to co-operate on its passage through the House of Lords.
Mr Johnson is therefore planning on Monday to force another vote by MPs on a motion about a snap election.
Downing Street believes it can resubmit the same motion used on Wednesday, despite the convention that the Commons Speaker John Bercow does not usually allow the same one being put forward twice, because circumstances will have changed.
Mr Johnson will dare Labour not to back the motion, arguing it is bizarre for an opposition party to turn down the chance of forming a government.
Once again the prime minister will need to secure the support of two-thirds of MPs to secure an election.
Some Labour MPs are hostile to voting for an election. Andy Slaughter, MP for Hammersmith, said he would not support any such vote unless there was a “copper-bottomed guarantee” that the legislation to prevent a no-deal Brexit would be adhered to.
The legislation would require the prime minister to ask the EU for an extension to the Article 50 divorce process if he has not secured a Brexit deal at a European leaders’ summit on October 17-18.
One member of the shadow cabinet predicted that Mr Corbyn would not order his MPs to vote for an election on Monday given pressure from senior Labour figures including Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, who want to take a more cautious approach.
“We’re not there yet but I think we’re going to hold back from backing an election next week,” said the shadow cabinet member.
Many opposition MPs do not want an election until the request for the Article 50 extension has been made and accepted by the EU.
They also believe the Conservatives would be rejected by voters if Britain is still in the EU on November 1, given Mr Johnson’s promise to leave on October 31.
Stephen Gethins, the SNP’s Europe spokesman at Westminster, hinted his party was also shifting against an early election. “We need to make sure that no-deal really is off the table,” he said. “That is my number one priority right now.”
If Labour does not back an election in the vote on Monday it would leave Mr Johnson seeking alternative ways to trigger a poll before parliament’s suspension, which must take place by September 12 and is due to last until October 14.
One option would be for ministers to introduce a bill setting the date for an October election that would only require a simple majority of MPs to vote for it.
The problem is that the bill would be amendable by MPs, meaning opposition parties could use it to push for a November election.
Another option could be for Mr Johnson to launch a vote of no confidence in his own government to try to secure an election.