Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte speaks ahead of a confidence vote in Rome, Italy September 10, 2019 REUTERS/Remo Casilli
Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome, where a new coalition has formed following Matteo Salvini's sudden fall © Reuters

Matteo Salvini and Boris Johnson have at least one thing in common. They both misjudged their ability to force elections. But there is an extra lesson in Mr Salvini’s sudden fall: a tactical retreat from government can backfire.

Mr Salvini, the leader of Italy’s populist party, the League, walked out of his coalition with the Five Star Movement at the wrong time. Two months earlier, he might have been able to trigger elections. But by deciding to abandon ship in August, he gave the Five Star Movement, his coalition partner, the perfect excuse to team up with the centre-left Democratic party, since the electoral timetable would have made it impossible for Italy to pass the 2020 budget. Failing to pass a budget would have triggered an otherwise obligatory and damaging increase in value added tax.

Italy, like many other European countries, has fixed-term parliaments, as has the UK since 2011. As we have just seen, it is no longer possible for a prime minister to “call” elections without the consent of the House of Commons. So although Britain and Italy have very different political systems, parliamentary majorities can assert themselves midterm in both, and form alternative governments.

There is another parallel. One reason why Five Star and the Labour party in the UK were reluctant to back elections was fear of losing. Mr Salvini’s League achieved 36 per cent of the votes in the European elections in May. Together with another small rightwing party, he may have cleared the threshold needed to gain power if this result had been repeated at a general election. Since his departure from government, Mr Salvini’s popularity has fallen. Five Star and PD together are now in a comfortable position, with Mr Salvini self-destructing on the opposition benches.

I do not expect that anything good will come of the new Italian government. Neither party has any strategies on how to tackle the coming recession. But the coalition might prove sticky for all the wrong reasons. I would not even rule out that it could last until 2023 when the next elections are due.

Could something similar happen in the UK? Of course it could. If Mr Johnson were to resign as prime minister to avoid having to write a Brexit-extension letter, a government of national unity could form, supported by Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and assorted independents. Its initial mandate would be to ask for an extension, and then bring about elections. Of course its participants may change their mind when they realise that they have nothing to gain from a vote. So what starts out as a stopgap administration could stay in power all the way until 2022, when the next election is due. Such a government could simultaneously destroy the political careers of Mr Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. And it could stop Brexit: as such it is attractive for Remainers. This is Project Reset the Clock.

Mr Salvini underestimated his opponents. Mr Johnson would be making the same mistake if he believes that he could quickly bounce back after resigning. He may find that even if his popularity is rising, parliament continues to deny him elections to win.

To understand more clearly the importance to Mr Johnson of continuing in government, consider what the current situation looks like from the perspective of the European Council, whose members are the prime ministers and presidents. This body does not take orders from parliaments, nor from judges in courts in the nation states. If Mr Johnson were to write a letter asking for a Brexit extension, the other prime ministers and presidents would surely ask him, in a closed-door session, whether he really meant it. They may act against his unofficial advice, but I would not bet on this. And some have their own agenda.

The law passed by parliament to force Mr Johnson to ask for an extension is well-drafted but not watertight. The European Council could say, for example, that it would extend the Brexit deadline beyond October 31 but only if the UK were to hold elections or a second referendum. That would not be an unreasonable response. Then what?

This is why I think Remainers made a mistake in choosing the legislative route, rather than trying to go after Mr Johnson himself by supplanting him as prime minister. Many UK politicians, journalists and even lawyers have not read or reflected on Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. EU law allows for a unilateral revocation of Article 50. But it does not allow the UK to take no-deal off the table without choosing an alternative. Extensions are possible, but are in the gift of others.

The Remainers best hope is now to gain executive power. The only way finally to frustrate Brexit is through a government that believes in such a course. There is no other.

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