Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What are the chances of an snap general election?

Yet more speculation from the press about the possibility of an early general election.

Yet another dismissal of the idea from Number Ten: The Prime Minister's spokesperson yesterday responded to speculation about an early general election by saying "There is not going to be one." and adding that the idea was "Nonsense."

The Prime Minister has now said so many times that she does not want a snap election or think the country needs one that she would have to have a very good reason to justify changing her mind. It is important to Theresa May that she is seen to be a woman of her word.

"I've got the opportunity to get a bigger majority because Corbyn is so useless"

would not cut it as an excuse, let alone as an argument to use when trying to get the required two-thirds majority for a dissolution  motion through the House of Commons.

Most of the people who think that the Conservatives may call a snap election don't appear to have thought through how difficult the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) now makes it. I can only see one circumstance in which it could happen.

It won't happen over Brexit because the government now has the authority to trigger Article 50 and negotiate, and the fact that they managed to get the "Exiting the European Union" Act though both houses of parliament reasonably quickly and with no amendments demonstrates that, however divisive the issue is, the government appears to have a working majority on the most important and difficult issues of the day.

Under the previous political rules, losing major parts of your budget because you don't have a big enough majority to get it through would be a serious issue for a government and if such a government had a 19-point lead in the polls the temptation to call a snap general election to try to increase their majority would probably have been irresistible.

But these are not normal times as the fact that the governing party could have to pull the main change in the budget after a week and still be 19 points ahead in the following opinion poll demonstrates.

By comparison with the challenge of making a success of Brexit, issues which would normally pose an existential challenge to a government, such as being forced to withdraw the NI changes, are relatively peripheral.

And then there are the actual mechanics of trying to call a snap election under the FTPA which are anything but straightforward. Jeremy Corbyn has said he would tell his MPs to support a dissolution motion but would he really do it when looking down the barrel of a 19-point deficit in the opinion polls and the prospect of Labour being smashed down  below the 150 seats mark? And even if he did, would enough Labour turkeys obey orders and vote for an early Christmas?

If there isn't a two-thirds majority for a dissolution motion, a government which wants an early election has two other options. One is to try to repeal the FTPA itself. That would require a simple majority in the House of Commons - and the House of Lords - and the present government does not have a majority in the Upper House. If their Lordships did not support the repeal of FTPA or didn't want an early election and stood firm, they could be over-ruled using the Parliament Act - but that takes six months. This might work as a means of arranging well in advance to have an early election - if for instance the government decided now that it wanted to have an election straight after Brexit in 2019 - but as a means of calling a snap election it is a non-starter.

The kamikazi option for a party with a majority in the House of Commons which wants an early election is to pass a motion of no-confidence in the government and then use that majority to prevent any other government being formed.

This would amount to deliberately creating a constitutional crisis which begins with the government declaring that it has no confidence in itself. Anyone who suggests this route could be used in circumstances other than the direst emergency has not thought through how utterly dreadful it would look. It could very easily send the markets into free-fall and would be a terrible start to an election campaign.

There is, however, one scenario in which Theresa May could and probably would go to parliament and ask for a dissolution with every prospect of getting it.

I do not think this is likely, but suppose that the ongoing investigation into 2015 election expenses produced prosecutions against a large enough number of Conservative MPs as to threaten the government's majority -e.g. ten or more - and call into question the legitimacy of the government's election.

If that were to happen then the right thing for the government to do would be to immediately call a new general election to seek a fresh mandate, and I think it would be very difficult for opposition MPs to vote against a dissolution motion proposed in such circumstances.

A government which accepted the need for a fresh election without waiting for the court cases would probably get credit for doing the right thing and minimise the damage from the fact that the prosecutions had been brought: a government which appeared to be trying to cling to power when its' democratic legitimacy had gone would be likely to suffer for it. Mrs May is clever enough to work that one out. So I suspect there is a contingency plan at Conservative Campaign Centre for a snap election if things go seriously pear-shaped on the expenses front.

But if, as I strongly suspect will be the case, there isn't evidence which would justify a prosecution in more than one or two cases, then my money is on the next election taking place in May 2020.

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