Boris Johnson is legally entitled to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 without a deal even if he loses a vote of confidence and his government falls, the attorney-general has suggested. Geoffrey Cox is understood to believe that there is no legal basis to prevent the prime minister from taking Britain out of the EU, even if October 31 arrives amid a general election campaign triggered by a no-confidence vote in the government over no-deal. There is concern in government that
Mr Johnson’s majority of two means he could be defeated in a vote of confidence and be forced to go to the polls. Tory rebels have held talks with Labour and opposition parties about a possible vote of confidence in Mr Johnson when parliament returns in September to try to stop a no-deal Brexit. Cabinet ministers have debated about what would happen if the run-up to the election, which usually lasts for seven weeks, fell as Britain is due to leave the EU.
The Times has been told that Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, has suggested to colleagues that the “status quo” of Britain’s membership of the EU must remain if a general election is held over October 31. He has referred them to the cabinet manual which states that it is “customary” for ministers to “observe discretion” in the run-up to an election by avoiding making any “major policy decisions”.
However, senior figures in government believe that Mr Johnson will be legally entitled to disregard convention because the default legal position is that Britain leaves on October 31. They argue it is only convention that means prime ministers do not make significant policy decisions before voters go to the polls.
Dominic Grieve, a former attorney-general and prominent Remainer, said that it would be “utterly perverse” to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 before a potential election. “There is a long-established convention that once a general election has been called no government should take anything other than caretaker decisions,” he said.
“No important policy decisions should be taken which could fetter the freedom of an incoming government. No greater fetter could exist than if we irrevocably withdraw from a major treaty. Therefore any government once the purdah period has kicked in must seek to preserve the status quo by asking the EU for an extension until sometime after the election.”
If Mr Johnson loses a vote of confidence, he or the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will have 14 days to attempt to form a majority government. Should they fail, a general election will be held. Tory Remainers and Eurosceptic ministers believe the issue is likely to end up in the courts if the Brexit deadline falls in the build up to the election.
Iain Duncan Smith, an ally of Mr Johnson, said that Britain would leave at the end of October as the “default position”. “If the government does nothing we leave on the 31st,” he said. “If we are in an election it makes no difference, we still leave because it is law. What would happen immediately is this would go straight to the Supreme Court. That will be the fight.”
Mr Johnson has made clear that holding an election before Brexit has been delivered would be “absolute folly”. Senior allies have said, however, that planning was under way to go to the polls by the summer of next year. A visit to the Queen, a speech in Downing Street, then what? Matt Chorley speaks to those who know what it is like to move into No10, including Tony Blair, Gus O’Donnell, Stewart Wood, Gabby Bertin, and Katie Perrior.
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Members of Mr Johnson’s team are concerned that getting legislation through parliament with a majority of two could prove impossible.
They are said to be preparing for a general election either being forced on the party in a vote of no confidence or by Mr Johnson having to call a snap election once Brexit has been delivered.
The Conservatives have picked up voters from the Brexit Party since the election of Boris Johnson but lost support to the Liberal Democrats. A Times/YouGov poll conducted after Mr Johnson became leader and prime minister put the Tories on 25 points, the Lib Dems on 23, Labour on 19 and the Brexit Party on 17. While the level of support for the Conservatives is unchanged, the polling suggested that Tory voters who defected to the Brexit Party are returning to the Tories under Mr Johnson.