Yesterday afternoon, the Conservative working majority in the UK House of Commons shifted to zero, as Tory MP Phillip Lee crossed to the opposition benches to become a Liberal Democrat. Later that evening their majority dropped further — to negative forty-three, as twenty-one Tory MPs were expelled for voting against the government to advance a bill that would potentially block crashing out of the European Union with No Deal on October 31.
On the night of the vote, criticism of the Tories focused heavily on the symbolic affront of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s physical posture on the front bench: slouched almost horizontally, taking up as much space as possible now that there was more free space on the government benches than the opposition’s side.
By proroguing Parliament and limiting the amount of time available to debate motions aimed at delaying the United Kingdom’s EU exit, the Conservatives assumed they would be making their job a little easier. The opposition, and some of their own MPs, didn’t make it so. To stop Tories from rebelling, backbenchers were threatened with expulsion and the promise that they could not stand for the party at the next election, whenever that may be. The threat was supposed to force the MPs to fall into line, but failed abysmally: fear can make you backtrack, but mutual contempt is more likely to harden your resolve.
As a result, on the first day back in parliament after the summer recess, Boris Johnson looked incredibly weak, sounded utterly panicked, and, according to reports, his purported “strategic mastermind” Dominic Cummings was seen wandering the corridors, glass of red wine in hand, shouting at Jeremy Corbyn as he passed. For all of Cummings and Johnson’s boasting that they would “Take Back Control,” they appear instead to have immediately lost it. Westminster has been filled with protestors more evenings than not in the last few days, and news channels and journalists have repeatedly admitted that all anyone knows right now is that no one knows precisely what happens next.
If Wednesday’s vote passes, Parliament will ask the government to request an extension to the leave date. The government can then accept that or refuse it and instead move to call a general election (which must pass by a two-thirds majority, thanks to the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act), which would probably be held in mid-October. Or the vote may fail and the government will proceed to prepare for party conference season.
Either way, an election looks more likely now than at any point since Theresa May’s 2017 snap poll. Johnson will struggle to govern without a reliable majority and is already panicking that he may prove to be an even more disastrous Conservative prime minister than May.
Labour has said it won’t back a general election until the prospect of an imminent No Deal is taken off the table. The Conservatives believe voters are more scared of Corbyn in Number 10 than they are of a No Deal Brexit. But that view mistakes the consensus of Westminster journalists for the feeling of the entire country. Labour under Corbyn has already proven it performs best under election conditions, with news channels more beholden to rules on impartiality and able to fall back on far more campaigning volunteers than the Tories can manage to muster.
In proroguing Parliament, the government has treated the public and MPs with contempt, and the move looks intensely undemocratic. Johnson was kept as far from TV cameras as possible during his leadership campaign, but doing so during a general election will be impossible. His behavior on camera in Parliament has been deeply unimpressive, with even right-wing journalists admitting Corbyn outflanked him in his first Prime Minister’s Questions debate.
Whatever happens in the coming few days, the country is careering towards a general election. Younger people are registering to vote in droves, which should worry Conservative candidates and strategists. If Labour came so close in 2017 to running the Conservatives to defeat despite the fact that many Labour MPs were actually rooting for their own party to lose, in hopes of sidelining Corbyn, the grotesque pantomime the Tories have treated the country to in the last few years may be enough to completely sink the Conservatives in an election.
Labour has to hold its nerve and continue to anticipate an imminent election. The sight of Boris Johnson, the man who believed he was born to be prime minister, suddenly realizing he is failing at the job is entirely delicious. But the ongoing implosion of the Conservative party is just as enjoyable. And despite the current hubris in its headquarters, a general election may actually kill it off.