LONDON—Unfortunately for Boris Johnson, the British prime minister now needs us to take him at his word.
Britain’s opposition parties voted on Wednesday to reject Johnson’s proposal to hold an election before Halloween, the night by which he promises to have delivered Brexit. His rivals said they could not trust him not to abuse the power of his office to simply move the election date into November and crash the country out of the European Union while there is no parliament in place to stop him.
He told the House of Commons that he wouldn’t do it. His official spokesman told reporters that he would never consider such a move.
But Boris Johnson’s word is not his bond.
The former journalist (who is also known to have fathered at least five children during two marriages and several affairs) has twice been fired for dishonesty.
His job at The Times of London was terminated when he fabricated a quote from his godfather Colin Lucas, a historian, to use in a story about Edward II. Sadly for him, the made-up quote contained such an obvious historical error that Lucas was forced to come out and defend his honor, thus costing Johnson his first job.
He suffered a similar fate once he had entered politics. When tabloid newspapers wrote about his four-year affair with Petronella Wyatt, the daughter of Lord Wyatt, he described the reports as an “inverted pyramid of piffle.” Her family came forward to say it was true and Wyatt had undergone an abortion, leaving Johnson to be sacked by the Conservative Party for lying once again.
A court case examining Johnson’s first controversial move as prime minister prompted further concerns about his honesty. He stated publicly that he was not planning to shut down Parliament in the lead up to the Brexit deadline, and his Downing Street spokesman continued to insist that would not be the case until days before Johnson asked the queen to do just that.
Johnson argued disingenuously that the shutdown was just the traditional prorogation used to separate sessions of Parliament. Prorogation is indeed an annual occurrence but this was to be the longest parliamentary shutdown in 40 years and the first since the aftermath of World War II to be called at a time of constitutional crisis.
Emails handed over to a Scottish court examining the legality of the move showed that Johnson had signed off on the prorogation in mid-August after which officials continued to deny for weeks that it would be implemented.
After a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons on Tuesday night when 21 Conservative lawmakers voted to take control of Brexit away from their own prime minister, Johnson called for a new election to be held.
The opposition parties are refusing to accept this latest gambit until they are certain that Johnson won’t try some kind of procedural maneuver to push through a no deal Brexit. Johnson won the vote by 298 to 56 but that fell well-short of the number required to trigger an election.
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer said it was impossible to believe Johnson’s assurances because he has been “dishonest time and again” and “lied” to lawmakers.
“When he says the 15th of October, I can tell you across all the opposition parties and some Tory MPs, they do not trust him,” he said.
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was an “elephant trap.”
For hundreds of years British prime ministers had the power to call an election whenever they wanted. This was often used to try to take advantage of a wave of popularity—such as Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election of 2017—but it also helped to navigate political crises when a government’s legitimacy was being questioned. On the other hand, it was very easy for an election to be triggered by the opposition if the government no longer commanded a majority in the House of Commons.
That system was curtailed by the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, who saw a short-term gain in being able to cement his 2010 coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron was also the leader who decided that a referendum on membership of the European Union would be a neat way to end decades of internal Conservative bickering about Europe.
Under Cameron’s Fixed-Term Parliament’s Act, a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons is required to bring about an early end to a five year term. Johnson has no way of securing that supermajority without the help of his opponents; on Wednesday he fell more than 130 votes short, giving him his third defeat out of three votes in his short prime ministerial career.
Johnson made a “do or die” commitment to get Britain out of the EU by October 31 even if that meant triggering a No Deal Brexit, which would mean Britain had no trade deals with Europe and would be likely to suffer economic harm in the short term at least.
On Wednesday, the rebels who defeated Johnson the night before returned to the Commons and backed a bill to block a No Deal Brexit if the prime minister hasn’t agreed a plan with the EU ahead of the October 31 deadline. It will now pass to the second chamber, the House of Lords, for expected approval.
The bill could have been derailed by some fresh apparent duplicity from the prime minister. An unpopular amendment to it unexpectedly passed after the government reportedly refused to provide staff to count any of the votes against it. However, the opposition lawmakers and Conservative rebels were undeterred and passed the bill with a 29-strong majority.
Unable to push through No Deal, or call an election and hope that a fed-up nation would agree to get this over with, Johnson is now left with nowhere to turn in the short term. He responded to the bill passing by formally challenging Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to back his call for a general election next month, but as things stand the measure doesn’t have the required two-thirds approval of the House of Commons.
Labour is split on when to acquiesce to an election, but they know that forcing Johnson to break his Halloween pledge would be a boon to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which waits in the wings, poised to steal millions of Conservative votes whenever the country does go back to the polls.
Despite that chance to make Johnson go back on his word, Corbyn is still minded to go to the people as soon as possible in the belief that a strong campaign would see him installed into No 10. He's been calling for an election ever since the last one, and appeared rankled earlier when Johnson mocked him as a “big girl’s blouse” for not rushing to back a vote.
If only he could convince the rest of his skeptical and largely anti-Brexit party that Johnson would be as good as his word.