Election speculation sweeps Westminster ahead of Brexit showdown
Boris Johnson has summoned his senior ministers to Downing Street ahead of Tuesday’s showdown with rebel MPs, fuelling speculation he could be prepared to call an early election.
The Prime Minister has put potential Tory rebels on notice that they face losing the whip and being barred from standing for the party if they back measures intended to block a no-deal Brexit when the Commons returns from its summer break.
Downing Street is braced for a cross-party effort to seize control of Commons business to rush through legislation aimed at preventing the Prime Minister taking the UK out of the European Union on October 31 without an agreement with Brussels.
In comments viewed as a signal that he will call an election if he is defeated, a Number 10 source said the vote will be “an expression of confidence in (the) Government’s negotiating position to secure a deal and will be treated as such”.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg described the vote as “essentially a confidence matter”.
In the past, before the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the loss of a vote on an issue being treated as a matter of confidence would normally trigger an election.
In a last-ditch warning to Tory MPs such as former chancellor Philip Hammond, who are expected to swell the ranks of Conservative rebels now they are no longer ministers, Downing Street said it would be “entirely unreasonable” for them to attempt to “bind the hands” of the PM as he seeks to negotiate a new Brexit deal.
Mr Johnson is hosting all Tory MPs at Number 10 on Monday evening for a gathering which could prove awkward given the threat to remove the whip from rebels.
His official spokesman earlier told a Westminster briefing that the UK would leave the EU “whatever the circumstances” on October 31.
He added: “The Prime Minister has said from the start that he will be energetic in pursuit of a deal. We have put forward reasonable proposals and the PM and his team have been discussing these with EU leaders and the (European) Commission over the summer recess.
“It would be entirely unreasonable for MPs – having rejected the previous deal three times – to attempt to bind the hands of the Prime Minister as he seeks to negotiate a deal they can support ahead of EU Council in October.”
Earlier, Mr Johnson was accused of “goading” some Tory MPs to rebel so he can force a snap general election having purged opponents of a no-deal Brexit from the party.
David Gauke, the former justice secretary and rebel ringleader, accused the Prime Minister of deliberately trying to lose votes to block a deal-less departure this week.
Mr Gauke, head of the so-called “Gaukeward squad” of Tory rebels, said the Prime Minister’s move was an “unusual” and “particularly confrontational” approach.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he has not been subject to the usual “cajoling” from Cabinet allies to urge him to support the Government’s line.
“I think they seem to be quite prepared for there to be a rebellion, then to purge those who support the rebellion from the party,” he said.
Mr Gauke said he has taken the extraordinary move of writing to Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland, asking them to confirm whether the Government believes in the rule of law.
The backbencher’s letter came after Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal planning, refused to confirm whether ministers would abide by any measure passed by Parliament.
Meanwhile, Mr Hammond has written to the PM asking him to set out details of his plan to renegotiate the Brexit deal with Brussels in an apparent attempt to get Mr Johnson to show whether he is serious about avoiding a no-deal exit.
In a sign of Cabinet unease about the tough stance being taken by Mr Johnson, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd said: “I have made my views clear to the Prime Minister that we should not be a party that is trying to remove from our party two former chancellors, a number of ex-cabinet ministers, that the way to hold our party together and to get a deal is to bring them onside and explain to them what we’re trying to do and why.”
She told the Spectator’s Women With Balls podcast she questioned whether it was fair to take such action given that previous rebels who opposed Theresa May’s deal – including Mr Johnson – kept the whip
“I’m really urging the Government to think very carefully about taking such a dramatic step,” she said.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who called a meeting of his shadow cabinet in Salford to discuss tactics, said: “First we must come together to stop no-deal – this week could be our last chance.
“We are working with other parties to do everything necessary to pull our country back from the brink. Then we need a general election.”
Former prime minister Tony Blair used a speech in London to urge Labour not to support any push by Downing Street for an early general election, but demand a Brexit referendum instead.