Brexit: No 10 denies government is split over pre-Christmas election

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Boris Johnson has made clear he does not want a delay to Brexit

Downing Street has dismissed reports of disagreements within Boris Johnson’s government over how to move forward with the Brexit process.

No 10 has indicated the PM will seek a snap poll if the EU proposes delaying the Brexit deadline until January.

However, some ministers are understood to want to focus on getting the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill through Parliament instead.

No 10 sources insisted there were no splits in the cabinet’s strategy.

The question of how to move forward with Brexit follows Tuesday’s key Commons votes, where MPs backed the prime minister’s deal at its first Parliamentary hurdle but rejected his plans to fast-track the legislation.

That defeat effectively ended any realistic prospect of the UK leaving the bloc by 31 October – something Mr Johnson has repeatedly insisted would happen under his premiership.

In response, the prime minister announced he would pause the progress of his Withdrawal Agreement Bill while he waited to hear from the EU on whether they would grant a delay to Brexit and what length it should be.

However, there have been reports of divisions among ministers and senior No 10 advisers over whether to press for a December poll.

Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, is, according to the Sun, leading calls to abandon attempts to get the prime minister’s deal through Parliament and go for an election.

But Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith is said to be among ministers arguing it is still possible to pass a bill ratifying the agreement.

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson met Jeremy Corbyn to discuss how to break the Brexit impasse.

The Labour leader was keen to discuss a different timetable for the Brexit bill, while the prime minister wanted to know what Mr Corbyn would do if the EU refused to grant an extension.

But nothing was agreed between the pair and no further talks have been planned.

The fact that talks took place between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson suggests that No 10 may not be totally wedded to the idea of a winter general election. Pressed in the Commons, the PM did not close the door to bringing back his deal.

And there are those in government who are deeply wary of a winter election. Why? Bluntly, because it is so blooming cold.

No-one is going to thank him if they have to tramp off to the polling station in the bleak midwinter.

There’s a fear that older voters would be the most likely not to turn up – yet those may be the ones who were keenest to back Brexit.

Then there is the nativity play problem. Many school halls, which are used for polling stations, have been booked up for Christmas activities – and woe betide Mr Johnson if he forces those to be cancelled.

Will a pre-Christmas election happen?

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Even if Mr Johnson does decide to press for an early election there is no guarantee he will succeed.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the prime minister needs to have the backing of two-thirds of MPs to hold a snap poll. This has been rejected twice by MPs.

Jeremy Corbyn has said his party is ready to go to the country once it is sure Mr Johnson cannot “crash out” in a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a campaign.

However, there is widespread opposition among the party’s MPs at a time when they are trailing in the polls.

While there are other potential routes to an election, such as Tories voting for a no-confidence motion in their own government – which would only require a simple majority of one – they are also fraught with difficulties.

Another route to an election is a one-line bill, that requires only a simple majority, but any such bill is likely to incur a host of amendments, for example, giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote.

There is also the option of a vote of no confidence in the government, which Mr Johnson could even call himself.

But Parliamentary rules state that if it passes, the Commons has 14 days to form an alternative administration, so he would run the risk of being forced out of Downing Street if opposition parties can unite around a different leader.

If an election were to be triggered this week, the earliest it could take place would be 28 November, as the law requires 25 days between an election being called in Parliament and polling day.

Mr Johnson was forced by law to send a letter to Brussels requesting a three-month extension, which he did on Saturday.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said he spoke to European Council President Donald Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday and stressed to both his continued opposition to a delay.

The 27 EU ambassadors have had a first, informal discussion about a Brexit extension.

They all agreed on the need to extend the deadline, to avoid a no-deal outcome – but the duration of this possible extension remains under discussion.

A decision by the EU is not expected until Friday.