Jeremy Corbyn called for a general election in a speech in Wakefield on Thursday morning. That’s what oppositions do, so what’s new? The government’s essential, all-consuming, defining policy of our era is about to be voted down in parliament. The shadow of the loss of 5,000 Jaguar Land Rover jobs sharpens the immediacy of the nightmare – with Brexit said to be partly to blame. As Corbyn declared: “A government that cannot get its business through the House of Commons is no government at all.”
That used to mean a government fell and a prime minister resigned, with an election inevitable. No longer. Instead, here is a government with no majority, surviving only on bungs to a handful of unionist extremists who don’t represent remain-voting Northern Ireland. Even then, it still loses vote after humiliating vote, with no intention of resigning in the honourable, old-fashioned way. If John Bercow – this morning called “speaker of the devil” by the Sun – is stretching the rules, he is only responding to this extraordinary constitutional crisis. The spirit of his role is to stand up for parliament, as this majority-less government makes serial attempts to deny MPs any say.
If, as expected, the PM’s deal fails on 15 January, Labour will immediately call for a vote of no confidence in her government, as it should. But it’s unlikely any Tories will vote to bring themselves down, causing an immediate election. The Labour conference prescribed a sequence for what happens next, deciding to keep open all options, including a second referendum.
But that would be nothing compared with the warfare that would break out over the Tory manifesto in an election now. The party would fragment in radically different directions: European Research Group v remainers, referendumites, Canadians and Norwegians. Besides, they would need a new leader fast, and their membership would choose a more divisive ardent Brexiteer.
A chaotic general election might be catnip to political commentators, psephologists and constitutional academics, fuelling speculation that out of this mayhem new parties might be forged in a changed political landscape. Frankly, I see no significant change without proportional representation. Until then, iron electoral lore locks all change within the two and half parties we have, crushing newcomers. Voters will still have to hold their noses and vote for the portmanteau party they least dislike, far left and far right of each party obliged to cohabit unhappily. Just possibly out of all this might come popular demand for electoral reform – an understanding that this is no dry constitutional Westminster topic but a burning democratic right to vote for a party of their own choice. There’s no sign of this as yet.
If/when May’s deal falls, and Labour fails to summon up an election, there will be just three days – probably only hours – for Labour to declare its next step. In that time, May is obliged to produce her plan B or a tweaked plan A again. Here comes the crunch. Convenient flannelling and ambivalence will end. On Tuesday, Starmer suggested article 50 and withdrawal would have to be extended, but he knows that’s likely to be allowed only for an election or a referendum, not for more dithering. Corbyn didn’t mention that in his speech. Nor has he called for a referendum yet, sticking to a Labour Brexitplan: but then timing is everything. This was not the day – but decision time will come after next Tuesday.
Labour’s tacticians will be acutely mindful of the stark polling figures. When YouGov asked how people would vote if Labour supported going ahead with Brexit, Labour slumped to third place, at 22%, behind the Liberal Democrats, who jumped to 26%. That’s a mistake Labour will never make, whatever Corbyn’s private predilections.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist