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Does Boris Johnson really want a general election, or does he have something else in mind?

Jonathan Arnott
Jonathan Arnott

is a former British member of the European Parliament. He is now a writer, publisher, and political consultant who has authored books on Brexit and chess. His fields of expertise include education and finance. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanArnott

is a former British member of the European Parliament. He is now a writer, publisher, and political consultant who has authored books on Brexit and chess. His fields of expertise include education and finance. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanArnott

Does Boris Johnson really want a general election, or does he have something else in mind?
Boris Johnson’s attempt to call a general election is a clever subterfuge. It’s not about Corbyn, or even about a general election. It’s actually a calculated plan for Brexit.

It took me a moment to figure out what on earth Boris Johnson was playing at, attempting to call a general election just after Parliament had passed the Queen’s Speech. The government had set out a plan for what it intends to do with this Parliamentary term, got Parliament to rubber-stamp the overall direction, and then immediately decided it would prefer not to introduce any of the legislation and have a general election instead.

READ MORE: UK PM Johnson says he wants early election on December 12

It’s all a bit Grand Old Duke Of York. Having marched his MPs through the lobbies to support a domestic agenda, Boris Johnson then wants to march them straight back out for a general election. Despite having some kind of Parliamentary majority – potentially – for his Brexit deal, he wants to risk it all on an election. The whole thing didn’t make much sense. There would be two alternative ways for Johnson to force a General Election if he really wanted one, but he’s declined to do either – choosing instead an option that can easily be blocked by the opposition. The whole thing seems somewhat Kafkaesque until the penny drops.

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I was playing a chess match last week. Finding that I was a move short of being able to carry out my best plan, I started looking around for alternatives. I found one: a move which I could insert, which forced my opponent to deal with a different threat and gave me the necessary ‘time’ to be able to complete the plan.

Labour clearly doesn’t want a general election that it’s almost certain to lose. Of course, Johnson knows perfectly well that Labour backbenchers are revolting at the prospect. The election isn’t itself the issue. Johnson’s strategy is different: it’s nothing to do with Corbyn, or Parliament, or general elections. It’s all about the European Council, which was gearing up to insist that the UK must accept the Benn Act extension to January 31.

A three-month Brexit extension only made sense from the EU’s perspective in one scenario: if the UK were to hold a general election in that time. Three months would be insufficient in law for a second referendum to be forced upon the British people, even if there were the political will to do it. By manoeuvring Labour into opposing a general election, Boris Johnson hopes to focus the EU Council’s attention on that fact. It’s a neat trick, designed to increase the chances that the UK is only offered a short ‘technical’ extension to Brexit.

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Johnson saw that the EU Council ‘board’ wasn’t in his favour, but by inserting an attempt to call a general election first, he increased his chances of keeping any extension as short as possible.

It may not work, but it’s a surprisingly clever plan. In chess, it’s always a good idea to play moves which give your opponent opportunities to make mistakes. The same is true of politics, but there’s no guarantee of success. The European Council might well insist upon January 31 anyway, but if it does, what has Boris Johnson actually lost? If anything, he’s still achieved a minor tactical victory: the Labour Party which has been calling for an election since Johnson became prime minister will now have blocked an election three times.

For Boris Johnson, the early signs are promising. A meeting of EU ambassadors this morning broke up without agreement on extension. It’s reported that French President Macron sees no point in a three-month extension if it won’t enable a general election.

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Even if his ruse fails to sway the European Council in the end, Johnson has still caused the Labour Party a minor embarrassment. Brexit remains as unpredictable as ever. In recent times, everything has become about political strategy. Whilst Theresa May was blissfully unaware of the nature of such wranglings, Boris Johnson is a shrewd operator. His deal has significant problems, keeping the UK more tied to the EU than many would want, but he is determined to deliver.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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