The perceived wisdom is that the Prime Minister must keep his word and take Britain out of the EU on 31 October, or face electoral humiliation, because he staked his reputation on do or die (i.e. on not being Theresa May). But would asking for an extension be so bad for him after all?
Let’s say Johnson’s proposals are shot down and he is refused a deal by the EU that’s any different from May’s - something that's looking increasingly likely. On one level, he will have failed to get a deal as he has repeatedly said he would, but he could say that his version of the deal actually enjoyed fairly broad Parliamentary support, giving it a much better chance of passing than May’s. In that presentation, he looks like a pretty reasonable guy who’s been boxed in by the intransigent EU and a conniving opposition, and who’s been forced to ask for an extension by the Benn Act - what more can I do?
The PM would - in this narrative - ask for an extension with his head held high, undermined and mistreated but resolved to follow democracy and the rule of law, all the while insisting that the extension is pointless because MPs and the EU are determined to thwart Brexit, playing a long game to achieve their elitist ends. He would appeal to the Leave voters to push Brexit over the line, by handing him control of Parliament - ending the mess once and for all so that the country can move on. If he’s really lucky, the opposition might panic, oust him and deliver the letter themselves, saving him from getting his hands dirty.
Corbyn and Swinson are banking on an extension lighting a fire under the Brexit party - thereby setting Boris Johnson’s electoral hopes on fire by splitting the Leave vote. It might work, but it’s not without risk - the British public likes a winner, but they also love a plucky underdog - especially if they can help him overcome the odds and triumph after all.
What if there actually is a deal?
A deal on the other hand introduces all sorts of uncertainties to the electoral calculus. It doesn’t look likely today, but if the EU and UK find a common language, then the PM could hail a great victory - or could he? It may actually be that a deal is more harmful to Johnson in an election than an extension.
For the Brexit Party, his compromise away from a WTO term exit would create a powerful narrative of Brexit not being delivered at all, but instead being stolen and neutered by the EU and the Tories, who are just like the rest of the elitist political class.
At the same time, you might assume the Lib Dems, whose surge in popularity is so damaging to Jeremy Corbyn, would be skewered by a deal - cancelling Brexit has less punch when we’ve already left. But would they? These new electoral tribes are built on raw, visceral stuff.
Will Remainers really go back to normal after a soft Brexit, or would they fight on - campaigning to rejoin during the transition period, arguing that the first referendum was not only illegitimate, it’s also quite a long time ago now. They might even be emboldened by a Brexit deal - it’s certainly hard to see the ejected hard remainers of the Tory party backing Johnson, the champion of Brexit, in a national poll. It might just be too soon.
The real question is whether ‘winning at Brexit’ gives Johnson any kind of bounce factor.
Prime Minister Johnson will be only too aware of the wartime Churchill swept away by a landslide Labour government with a radical socialist programme promising to deliver a land fit for heroes. Make no mistake the Corbyn programme is just as radical and once Brexit is out of the way, perhaps redistribution might look appealing to many voters.
The dilemma is most clear in non-metropolitan, Brexit-voting Labour seats. Will they back the saviour of Brexit? Will they see a compromise Brexit as a Brexit half-done? Will they return to type and vote Labour because, to crassly stereotype, everyone in the family always has and you can’t trust the Tories?
An election is coming sooner rather than later, which could have a profound impact on the direction the country takes, whether on Brexit or domestically or both, and it hinges on questions such as these. The uncertainty is as high as it’s ever been and, no matter what happens between now and October 31, we cannot expect the stakes to drop.
Image credits: Peter Summers / Stringer