They can run, but they can't hide. Jeremy Corbyn is only making things worse by prolonging Brexit purgatory

IN the last two years we’ve gone from a government with a small majority, Theresa May’s, to a government with no majority, then to a minority government and finally to no government at all.

At least, that’s how it was looking on Friday when Number 10 threatened to “go on strike” this week if Labour continue to block a General Election.

Boris Johnson has rolled back from that improbable industrial action, but he was only stating the obvious: we don’t have a functioning government in Westminster.

With a majority of minus 45 it is impossible for this administration to get its legislation through Parliament.

People say we have a zombie parliament, but it’s the government that should be pushing up the daisies.

For Europeans, used to proportional voting, having no government is quite normal, for periods at least.

Belgium, appropriately enough since its capital is Brussels, had no government for nearly two years after an inconclusive election in 2010. But Britain’s adversarial system was supposed to preclude that. Until now.

Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the government can’t simply call an election when it chooses, or when it loses votes in the Commons, as this one has done repeatedly. It has to win a two-thirds majority, which places the initiative in the hands of the opposition.

Alternatively, a government of national unity could take over after a confidence vote, which comes to the same thing.

Labour has been demanding a General Election for the past two years, but somehow can’t quite get round to voting for one, or moving a vote of no confidence in the government.

In a very real sense, the opposition has been keeping this government on life support.

Jeremy Corbyn said he wouldn’t vote for a General Election until a no-deal Brexit, which Boris Johnson had threatened for October 31, was “taken off the table” by the Benn Act.

The Benn Act passed, the letter was sent, Brussels has signalled an extension and no deal is off the table.

But Labour are now saying they want no deal to be taken off the table even after that extension. It wants an indefinite extension of Article 50, or a law saying that the UK will never be faced with a hard Brexit.

Labour’s justification for these transparent delaying tactics is that “you can’t trust anything Boris Johnson says”. Well, few might disagree.

But the only way to remove this serial liar is by an election. And, short of a Labour government in perpetuity, it is not possible in a democracy to rule out no deal forever.

No UK government can be bound by acts of a previous administration. The only way to rule out no deal indefinitely would be to revoke Article 50, or vote for the deal.

Labour has always voted against revocation and, indeed, condemned Jo Swinson as “Nigel Farage’s little helper” when the LibDem conference voted to revoke Article 50 without a referendum.

Hopes rose and fell last week that the Remainers might finally get their repeat referendum when the Withdrawal Bill passed Second Reading.

Some hoped that they could tag a referendum amendment. But it was not to be.

First, there needs to be government legislation to hold a referendum, not least because it involves expense, and Boris Johnson’s government will never legislate for a referendum.

Second, there is no majority in the Commons for a referendum, which is why the People's Vote campaign decided not to try a referendum vote on Super Saturday (remember that).

Third: there is no clarity on what the question would be. Remainers want the deal versus Remain. But Leave voters would never accept that.

They’ll demand that no deal must be on the ballot paper if Remain is on it. Don’t expect the Electoral Commission or the Supreme Court to sort that one out.

I suppose Brussels could simply say: well, we’ll revoke Article 50 for you – but that might look just a little like dictatorship.

They can’t undo Article 50 anyway because it was triggered by that vote in the UK Parliament in 2017 when MPs, including Labour, voted to leave by a majority of 384.

That’s where our problems really began.

French president Emmanuel Macron has made clear that the Benn Act extension until February 2020, the third, must be justified by a “democratic event” ie a General Election or a referendum.

But Brexitus Interruptus has now infected Brussels as well.

Last week, the EU withheld a decision on the length of the extension because they want to see if Parliament votes for a General Election tomorrow.

But since Westminster is waiting for a ruling from Brussels on the extension, we have found ourselves on a diplomatic equivalent of MC Escher’s Endless Staircase.

For some reason, the UK opposition parties believed Boris Johnson when he said he would rather “die in a ditch” than extend Britain’s membership of the EU beyond October 31.

Boris Johnson is notoriously unreliable, so why they believed this is a mystery.

What ditch did they expect him to fall into? Did they expect him to have a nervous breakdown and resign?

Johnson did what you’d expect him to do, which is ignore what he’d said and reframe the question: it’s not him in the ditch but Labour, for refusing to agree to the General Election.

“But he said he’d never send the letter” complain Labour supporters on social media.

Again, Johnson just amended the record, sent the Benn letter to Brussels along with a covering note saying it’s not government policy and that he wouldn’t co-operate.

It’s what this column said he would do all along.

Labour are now horribly exposed because they somehow didn’t bargain on Johnson turning the extension against them.

The opposition is now split. The SNP say there is now no justification for delaying an election because no deal is off the table – though Ian Blackford wants one on December 5, not December 12 as the government has offered.

For his part, Johnson is offering to give Parliament time to scrutinise his Withdrawal Bill if Labour agree to an election. But Labour still won’t bite.

The truth is that Labour MPs were furious when Jeremy Corbyn hinted last week that he might go for the election he has been demanding all along.

Most Labour MPs hate the Labour leader and don’t want an election while he’s in charge. Plus, many realise that they’ll lose their seats because they’ve been delaying the Brexit that many Labour voters voted for.

That is certainly a problem, but it is not one as likely to arouse much sympathy from the electorate.

All they see is endless delay, confusion, chaos, parliamentary bickering and a Prime Minister who got a Brexit deal that no-one said he would be able to get, jeering at Labour for not agreeing to the General Election they said they’d vote for once he’d got it.

Labour MPs can console themselves that the polls are bad right now.

But to depend on opinion polls for an election really would be a real constitutional innovation.

Perhaps we should replace the Queen with YouGov as head of state.

Then at least something might happen.