Winter is Coming, and so might an Election

October 24, 2019 Andrew Niblett

Headline Summary

  • The 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) requires the support of 434 MPs for an early General Election to be granted, which Boris Johnson failed to achieve twice since becoming Prime Minister.
  • An extension to Article 50 will almost certainly to be granted in the coming days, and the structure of this extension will determine when/if an election takes place. It is likely an extension to January 31st 2020 will be offered.
  • A General Election can take place a minimum of 25 working days after the dissolution of Parliament. Every election since 1931 has taken place on a Thursday, therefore leaving the earliest potential election dates of 5th or 12th
  • Were the Government to try and push through its Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), an election could then be called after it had been approved by Parliament, potentially from the middle of January 2020 to February 2020.
  • Or the Government could try and govern with a Minority Government, and call an election during the more common period of March-June.
  • If the WAB failed, the Government could then have to call an election, but if it failed close to the January 31st extension date, it is unclear if the UK would request, or the EU accept, a further extension.

Background

The next General Election is scheduled, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, to take place on May 5th 2022, however it is incredibly likely that an election will take place sooner, most probably within the next 5 months. Since becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has twice attempted to hold an early General Election, but didn’t gain the necessary 434 votes, with the majority of opposition Parties abstaining. These Parties strongly indicated that they would support a General Election once the UK was granted an extension to Article 50. With this likely to happen in the coming days, there are three key timeframes for when a General Election could now take place.


December 2019

Article 50 Extension

The length of the extension offered by the EU will be vital in determining when a General Election can take place. Were a short extension (around a month) to be offered, there wouldn’t be time to hold a General Extension, and so the only options would be to try and pass the WAB, further prepare for a no-deal Brexit, or revoke Article 50.

The reported consensus in Europe is to offer an extension to January 31st 2020 (the date the UK requested in a letter sent by the Prime Minister following the Benn Act). This would be for the EU to appear as neutral as possible and not risk becoming further involved in UK domestic politics.

This would present the Government and Prime Minister with a series of options, with the Government already indicating that it would abandon its WAB and try a hold a General Election. If the Government were to choose this option, Parliament could be dissolved the following Wednesday, with the election taking place five weeks later. At current estimates, this would be on either the 5th or 12th December, depending on when the EU announce the extension date.

Wavering Labour Backbenchers a Problem?

However, it is unclear that the Government would gain the support of 434 MPs, even following the extension and the threat of no-deal being removed. Many Labour backbenchers and other opposition MPs much prefer the option of a second referendum and are aiming to push the Labour leadership in this direction, which appears to be slowly working. With every poll giving the Conservatives a significant advantage, the Labour leadership may decide an election would be counter intuitive. Leader of the SNP in Westminster Ian Blackford did however signal during PMQs this week that his Party were now supportive of a General Election.

Some Conservatives are also warning against a December election, most notably those who represent Scottish constituencies (and not just because they are likely to lose their seats). The short daylight hours, poor weather, and the vast sizes of some constituencies would make campaigning a huge effort and make Election Day itself a task to get people out to vote. These are problems that will be replicated throughout the UK, with poor turnout a potential likelihood. This could also impact on the Conservative vote, with the average age of their voter base higher than other Parties.

With the last December election taking place in 1923, Labour’s apparent unwillingness to wholeheartedly support one, and the potential problems around campaigning, a December election is far from certain. A recent poll conducted by YouGov found that 38% of people supported holding an election before 2020, while 40% supported holding one in the Spring following an attempt to ‘resolve Brexit’.


Vote of No Confidence

Other than the FTPA, there are alternative ways for the Government to ensure an election takes place, but these are either slightly odd or riddled with potential dangers. The first would be to table a short Bill aimed at forcing through an election, which would only need a simple majority of votes. However, this would be open to amendments, such as allowing 16-year olds the vote or altering the date of the election itself. The second would be for the opposition to table a motion of no confidence in the Government, or for the Government to table a motion of no confidence in itself. This would then lead to a two-week period where an alternative Government could be formed that did have the confidence of the House, and if this failed an election would take place five weeks later. This would therefore make an election in December virtually impossible, unless the vote of no confidence takes place on Thursday 24th October.

The vote taking place on the Queen’s Speech today is also of relevance, as it is convention for the Prime Minister to stand down if their agenda is voted down, however this last happened in 1924. Were the Prime Minister to refuse to resign, Labour could then table a motion of no confidence, which, if no alternative Government were formed, would result in a General Election on December 12th 2019.


January – February 2020

‘Get Brexit Done’ and push for an Election

With the central tenet of Boris Johnson’s Government being to achieve what its predecessor couldn’t and to move on to the next stage of the Brexit process, the Government may choose to use a three-month extension to get its WAB through Parliament. Father of the House Ken Clarke, who voted for the Bill at second reading but against the Programme Motion, implored the Government during PMQs to do just this. The Prime Minister said, following the Government’s loss on its Programme Motion, that “we will leave the EU with this deal”, signalling that it wouldn’t be abandoning the Bill altogether. The Government may choose this option if it feared the potential impact of a ‘pre-Brexit’ election on its chances of securing a stable majority. An election after a deal had been agreed by Parliament would allow Boris Johnson to somewhat reduce the threat of The Brexit Party seeking a no-deal, as well as the Liberal Democrat’s policy of revoking Article 50.

However, this option also creates problems for the Government. With many MPs supporting the Bill at second reading in order to be able to further scrutinise and possibly amend it, there is potential that the Bill would be changed in a way that is unacceptable to the Government. Were this to happen, the Government could then call for an election, stating that Parliament had once again blocked Brexit. If this happened before the Christmas recess, an election could then take place before January 31st, and when Britain was (again) due to leave the EU. However, if this happened in January itself, the UK would need to request a further extension from the EU in order to hold an election, with it far from certain that either the UK Government or EU would approve.

As with a December election, this would result in campaigning at a time when there are reduced daylight hours and depressing weather, while January is also widely thought to be a month where people are more unhappy; though it is unknown if this would have any impact on the thinking of Government officials or Parliamentarians.


March 2020 Onwards

‘Get Brexit Done’, Govern as a Minority, and then hold an Election

Were the WAB to successfully pass through Parliament, the Government may not then necessarily call an immediate General Election, and the opposition may not call a vote of no confidence, waiting for any potential negative impacts of Brexit to come to the fore. The Conservatives could try and lead a Minority Government, bringing back the Independent Conservatives who either left or had the whip removed over Brexit-related matters but were supportive of the wider Government programme.

Were this to happen, it would be very fragile and have the potential to break down at any stage. This leaves open the potential for an election from March 2020 onwards, though it is likely that a minority Government would need to have an election by June.