In his statement outside No. 10, Boris Johnson’s message was simple: back me or help Corbyn. Ahead of a crunch Brexit vote tomorrow in the Commons, the Prime Minister urged Tory MPs to get on side and help ensure a Brexit deal could be agreed. In order to do this, Johnson said it was vital that MPs did not vote for the rebel alliance plot to try to force the government to request an Article 50 extension:
‘But if there is one thing that can hold us back in these talks it is the sense in Brussels that MPs may find some way to cancel the referendum. Or that tomorrow MPs will vote – with Jeremy Corbyn – for yet another pointless delay. I don’t think they will. I hope that they won’t. But if they do they will plainly chop the legs out from under the UK position and make any further negotiation absolutely impossible.’
Notably, Johnson repeatedly referred to the delay as being Jeremy Corbyn’s doing – even though it is cross-party rebel MPs who are putting forward the bill. He spoke against ‘Corbyn’s pointless delay’. The point of this is twofold. First, to stress the idea to MPs considering rebelling that they would be helping Jeremy Corbyn – Tory MPs feel more comfortable working with the MPs they view as acceptable Labour. Secondly, if the Tories do end up fighting an early election, they will want to paint Labour as a party of Remain and pitch themselves as the party of Leave.
On the subject of a general election, Johnson stressed that he did not want an early election and hoped to avoid one. However, he did open the possibility of one if Tory MPs rebel tomorrow – ruling out asking for an extension: ‘I want everyone to know there are no circumstances under which I would ask Brussels for a delay.’
The main point of Johnson’s statement was to pitch himself to the public as the person trying to deliver Brexit – and, crucially, avoid an unnecessary election. That by no means means an election will be avoided. If the anti-no deal rebels force through legislation this week, it is highly likely an election will follow. What Johnson is trying to do is make sure he doesn’t wear the blame for it. After the 2017 snap election, the Conservatives are battle-scarred and do not want to look as though they are the ones forcing another early trip to the polls.