Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Despite the polls, there won't be an Autumn election: and probably not a 2017 one either.

Because of the excellent opinion polls for the Conservatives in general and the new Prime Minister  in particular, there is some speculation among journalists about the possibility of an early election. The people who are suggesting that any such thing is likely do not understand either Theresa May or the implications of the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

There is no prospect of an Autumn 2016 election, and the only scenario in which a 2017 election is likely would be if the House of Lords were sabotaging the process of government.

Certainly this week's opinion polls look excellent for the Conservatives - IF you trust opinion polls.

Today's Ipsos MORI Poll has the Conservatives up to 45% (That's slightly more than Maggie Thatcher got in her 1983 and 1987 landslides) and eleven percentage points ahead of Labour.

Theresa May has opened up a  lead of 68% over Jeremy Corbyn in net satisfaction ratings,

and this is the really amazing result - Theresa May even has higher satisfaction ratings than Jeremy Corbyn among people who told the pollster they were Labour supporters.

So it is not surprising that some people are wondering whether the new PM might try to engineer an early election to take advantage of this. But there are several good reasons why she probably would  not want to do that even if she is in a position to try (which she might not be.)

Firstly, these are "Honeymoon" polls taken in the period when Theresa May has just taken office and has not yet had to do much more than appoint a new government and when there is no election in prospect. Mrs May will be only too well aware that, even if accurate, the polls are not guaranteed to translate into votes in a real election.

Secondly, as Martin Kettle pointed out in one of the few sensible articles on this subject in the MSM, Theresa May quite clearly ruled out the prospect of an early election when she stood for Conservative Party leader and PM. In his words,

"May is on the record as having said there would be no snap election under her leadership anyway. She said it on 30 June at the Royal United Service Institute in the speech that launched her bid to succeed Cameron. It’s there in black and white. She said it because she meant it, and in part because the markets needed to hear her say it so soon after the Brexit vote. Anyone who thinks that May is the kind of politician who says something so important without meaning it underestimates her, as many do."

Thirdly it would be both a massive risk, and entirely inappropriate, to call an election before the government has a clear policy to put before the electorate about what Brexit means in practice. That condition will not be met this year.

Forty years of British integration in Europe cannot be undone in a few weeks, whatever a minority of the more extreme Brexit supporters might think. But when voters are next asked to chose their government they are entitled to be told by the parties standing for election what exactly those parties propose Britain's relationship with Europe and the rest of the world after we have left the EU should be.

The fourth and biggest obstacle to an early election is of course the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, under which the prime minister no longer has the power to ask the monarch for a general election whenever he or she likes (which, of course, used to mean whatever date the sitting PM thought would maximise the government's chances of re-election.)

To call an early election now means one of three routes - the first is a resolution backed by two-thirds of MPs, 433 of the current 650 members. Even supposing that all 330 Tories voted for an early poll, the PM would still need Labour votes to call an election. Why on earth should Labour turkeys vote for an early Christmas if it appeared that the Conservatives would win a landslide in such an election?

The second route to an early election is for the government to propose and pass a motion of no-confidence in itself, and then prevent any other party from forming a majority government. In other countries with constitutional arrangements similar to the FTPA, governments have occasionally done things like this - the then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl deliberately lost of motion of confidence in 1982 so he could call a new election. This was controversial at the time in Germany and I'm pretty sure doing anything of the sort would be controversial here too. (It would also require a high degree of party discipline, or you can imagine the hysterically funny scenario of the government proposing a motion of no-confidence in itself and losing.)

The third route is to amend or repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act. This would of course require the agreement of the House of Lords.

If there was a very good reason to seek a new mandate -for example, the government was running into serious obstruction in the House of Lords I can see it becoming necessary to use one of these routes, but none of them are exactly easy to implement.

So I don't believe there is any chance of an autumn 2016 election - and the chances of a 2017 election, whatever flights of fancy the media may indulge, are not high either.

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