Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons in London, the UK, on October 23 2019. Picture: AFP/PRU
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons in London, the UK, on October 23 2019. Picture: AFP/PRU

Britain moved a step closer to a general election. Or else it moved closer to even more debilitating parliamentary gridlock. It’s so uncertain that EU leaders aren’t even sure what kind of an extension to the Brexit deadline to offer on Friday, or whether they should wait.

It’s ironic that the man who can break the deadlock is the opposition Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, one of the least decisive political leaders around. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs Labour’s support to get a general election approved by the House of Commons.

Corbyn shouldn’t submit to a gun to parliament’s head as it debates the most important legislation before it in a generation (indeed, there are indications that Labour law makers will refuse Johnson’s invitation).

In a letter to Corbyn on Thursday evening, Johnson proposed the following: the government will give parliament an extra week to try to pass the prime minister’s Brexit deal, and in return, Corbyn would support a general election on December 12, whether or not the deal passes. In other words, just as parliament has found a majority that supports the principle of a Brexit deal, Johnson wants to pull the plug.

If Corbyn refuses, the implied threat is that the government will withdraw the Brexit legislation and spend its days telling voters that Britain’s law makers are preventing it from honoring the 2016 Brexit referendum. Eventually there will have to be an election and the Conservatives would hope to capitalise on the anger of a thwarted electorate.

Having the Conservatives resolve the Brexit deal would let Labour’s law makers re-unite and focus on the critical next stage: a free-trade agreement with the EU

Corbyn is no doubt tempted. He would like an election as well, but has said it would depend on Johnson taking a no-deal Brexit off the table. That’s important, but even if Downing Street met that demand there’s good reason to ask for more. The terms of Johnson’s deal deserve proper, careful scrutiny, however painful the process. It’s hard to believe a week would be enough. Tactically too, why do Johnson’s bidding? He wants an election because he thinks he can trounce Corbyn.

Of course, Johnson’s camp is implying he’ll pull the Brexit withdrawal bill if Corbyn refuses an election, but we’ve had similar threats from Number. 10 and they’ve evaporated on contact with reality. Is Johnson really going to sit on his hands for months on end?

It’s easy to see why the prime minister doesn’t want to hang around parliament much longer. Law makers voted to keep his deal alive on Tuesday, but plenty of those who did so want to amend it, by attaching a confirmatory referendum or by seeking to keep Britain in the EU’s customs union. Such changes would be unacceptable to the hardline Brexiters in Johnson’s party.

Given the Conservatives’ widening lead in the polls, why jump through these perilous parliamentary hoops when winning an election would smooth the path to the deal’s approval and much more besides? And there are risks to waiting. The more his deal gets unpacked, the more it might feel like one of those Christmas presents that looks impressive out of the box but stops working a few days later.

It’s in Corbyn’s interests to ensure the deal receives proper parliamentary examination. If the deal dies in parliament, Labour will have helped expose its defects and appeared constructive in at least taking it seriously. If the deal passes in some form, that wouldn’t be the worst thing for Labour, which is split on its Brexit policy because of trying to placate supporters in remainer cities and leave-voting industrial regions.

Having the Conservatives resolve the Brexit deal would let Labour’s law makers re-unite and focus on the critical next stage: a free-trade agreement with the EU. Those Labour Brexiters in the north of the UK, who might have held their nose and voted Conservative (or Brexit Party) to get a deal, could return to the Labour fold.

This would also let the party get back to talking about domestic policy, where Corbyn vastly outperformed expectations in the last general election in 2017. His deep unpopularity will be harder to reverse this time around, of course — and in Johnson he’d be up against a strong campaigner. (Pollster John Curtice says current polls give the Tories a majority of about 20 seats.) There have been mutterings in the Labour hierarchy about replacing Corbyn with a less toxic leader, though that’s unlikely if there’s an election soon.

He’s certainly squandered the goodwill from the last election. Brexit hasn’t helped, as the opposition parties have been unable to articulate what they want instead of the deals on offer. Johnson, by contrast, has turned a weak hand and no parliamentary majority into a position of strength. So strong that it doesn’t make sense for Corbyn to help him out right now.

• Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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