Boris Johnson will “look at” an SNP and Liberal Democrat plan for an early election – despite a senior minister dismissing it as a “stunt”.
The two Remain-backing parties have set out their plan for an election on 9 December, leaving no time for MPs to first pass Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
It follows the prime minister’s call for the UK to go to the polls on 12 December – but he wants MPs to be able to consider his EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill first.
This comes after a majority of MPs rejected his previous proposed three-day timetable for them to consider the legislation to ratify his Brexit agreement.
Labour have so far resisted Mr Johnson’s demand for an early general election, with party leader Jeremy Corbyn calling for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit to be taken “completely off the table” before the UK heads to the polls.
Mr Johnson has reluctantly written to the EU to ask for a three-month Brexit delay – by extending the Article 50 negotiating period to 31 January – with the bloc likely to provide its answer this week.
EU ambassadors will meet in Brussels on Monday morning to consider a text on the UK’s request for a Brexit extension, according to Sky sources.
As the SNP and Lib Dems are tabling their own election offer as a piece of legislation – to amend current law that says the next election is set for May 2022 – they are likely to need support from either the government or Labour in order for it to be debated by MPs.
Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan, appearing on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show, dismissed the two parties’ offer as a “stunt”.
She instead urged them to support the PM’s motion for a 12 December election, which is likely to be put to a House of Commons vote tomorrow.
Mrs Morgan said: “What is different about the offer – or stunt I might say – by the SNP and Lib Dems is they have obviously made it clear that they have no intention of wanting Brexit to be done, no intention of wanting the Withdrawal [Agreement] Bill.
“They are saying, ‘go for an election’. It may well be that an election is going to happen.
“If the SNP and Lib Dems want an election then they have a chance to vote for one as quickly as tomorrow when the government’s motion is voted on.”
However, Downing Street later suggested the government might end up working with the SNP and Lib Dems on agreeing an early election, if the PM’s own motion is defeated.
Number 10 said: “If Labour oppose being held to account by the people yet again, then we will look at all options to get Brexit done including ideas similar to that proposed by other opposition parties.”
Asked why Mr Johnson wanted a pre-Christmas election after he won support, in principle, from the Commons for his Brexit deal, Mrs Morgan said: “There has to be a deadline for these things.”
She explained, under the PM’s election offer, MPs would have until 6 November to approve the Brexit deal before parliament would be dissolved for an election.
For his own election offer to be approved, Mr Johnson needs the support of two-thirds of all 650 MPs as it has been tabled under the terms of the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
Last month, he twice failed to reach that level of support for an early election.
Mrs Morgan also denied it was Mr Johnson’s intention to push for a no-deal Brexit if he wins a majority at an election.
“He would not have put such a huge amount of personal effort and put the whole government machine to negotiating this deal with the EU,” she added.
“He got this deal, he wants this deal.”
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth was similarly sceptical of the SNP and Lib Dem push for an election, branding it an “opportunistic stunt”.
“It’s just a stunt so the Lib Dems can get on the telly today,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
Setting out Labour’s position on an election, Mr Ashworth said: “We have to wait and see what the EU clarify about an extension date and if they give us that extension until January then we will have to consider it.
“But at the moment we don’t have that clarification and we cannot support Boris Johnson’s plans until we’ve got an absolute reassurance that no deal is off the table.”
3/ For all his bluster, Johnson would much prefer to fight an election with Brexit already ‘delivered’. An election now would instead force him to explain his failure to keep his 31 October ‘do or die’ promise and also defend his bad deal.
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) October 27, 2019
However, the EU appeared to be waiting for clarification from Westminster before deciding on an Article 50 extension.
France’s EU minister Amelie de Montchalin told French TV on Sunday: “We cannot give extra time based on political fiction.
“We need to have certainty in order to decide [on an extension], certainty about ratification, about elections or about a second referendum.”
Mr Ashworth admitted current polling was “not great” for Labour at the moment, but denied that was why the party was reluctant to back an early election.
“They weren’t that great in the last general election and [we] made up a lot of ground,” he said.
“So I think when we go out there and we talk about our vision for the country, about rebuilding our NHS and giving every child the best education in schools, I think we’ll be able to win people over to our programme.”
Lib Dem MP Chuka Umunna told Sophy Ridge on Sunday that his party had offered a general election because it was “highly unlikely” a majority of MPs will support a second EU referendum in the current make-up of the House of Commons.
The former Labour MP added the Lib Dem/SNP offer would not allow the PM to “ram” his Brexit deal through parliament and also “legally fixes” the date of an election in law.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, also admitted a second EU referendum was unlikely to be supported by the Commons under its current make-up.
She posted on Twitter: “For all his bluster, Johnson would much prefer to fight an election with Brexit already ‘delivered’.
“An election now would instead force him to explain his failure to keep his 31 October ‘do or die’ promise and also defend his bad deal.”