Calling an election is a crazy idea

by Hugo Dixon | 19.01.2019

Some Cabinet ministers are saying the prime minister could call a snap election. Downing Street has confirmed that Britain’s top civil servant has discussed contingency plans for one with senior officials this week.

But it’s a crazy idea: bad for the country, bad for the Conservatives – and isn’t likely anyway.

Of course, this is a mad time in British politics when all sorts of seemingly impossible things happen. But just think through the obstacles.

First, Theresa May would have to want an election. The theory goes that, if MPs reject her so far unpublished Plan B after already saying “no” to her Plan A, her only option will be to ask the people.

Forget for a moment that, if she wants to test her deal on the public, it would be more straightforward to call a referendum. The snag with an election is she couldn’t come up with a Brexit policy to put in her manifesto.

Remember that 118 Tory MPs have just voted against her deal. So if May said the party’s policy was to implement her deal, she’d split the party at least three ways: between those who want to crash out, those who back her deal and those who want a People’s Vote.

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That’s a recipe for being savaged by the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn would merely have to say he’d negotiate a better deal and put it back to the people in a referendum to attract not only traditional Labour supporters but a host of middle ground pro-Europeans too.

Some think the prime minister might instead say we should crash out of the EU with no deal – and put that in her manifesto. But that would provoke another giant split in her party, causing many ministers to resign.

There might not even be time to hold an election before we are due to quit the EU on March 29. While the EU would give us extra time if the government wanted to ask the people to back its deal, it wouldn’t extend the timetable if May wanted to crash out with no deal at all.

What about papering over the cracks in the Tory party by promising to implement her deal after “sorting out” the notorious Irish backstop? That’s what Grant Shapps, a former chair of the party, has suggested to the FT. But the EU won’t remove the backstop and so it won’t give extra time to hold an election if that’s the government’s policy. Shapps’ suggestion is another fantasy that will probably mean we crash out with no deal.

Given all this, it’s doubtful May will really want an election. But if she did, it’s also pretty unlikely she could force one. After all, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there can only be a snap election if two thirds of MPs vote in favour of one or the prime minister loses a vote of confidence. But she won one of those this week.

So there would be probably enough MPs to block an early election – even if the Cabinet didn’t do so first. In those circumstances, we could be heading for some sort of cross-party national unity government.

No, if the prime minister wants to test her deal on the public, the way to do it is via a People’s Vote.

6 Responses to “Calling an election is a crazy idea”

  • A general election will probably suit both the Conservative and Labour Parties. Mrs May can pledge to implement her withdrawal agree in her manifesto, the Labour Party can pledge to respect the results of the referendum based on a slightly different agreement from the Tory one. All the votes for the two parties get counted as being in favour of Brexit just like last time and Mrs May will be able to shame her MPs and probably some Labour ones into voting for her deal.

  • The Tories have put their local parties on notice for a snap election. If they did this, Parliament would be dissolved and would potentially not be reformed until the UK had left the EU without a deal. This would be dastardly move, but May is capable of it.

  • The RSPCA should be informed of the dead horses being flogged by our PM and the Leader of the Opposition. ‘May’s Deal’, trotted out over and over in Westminster to increasing rejection has become a sad joke. Corbyn’s attempts to engineer another General Election might sound a good idea to the hard left, but seems quite irrelevant to resolving the Brexit fiasco.

    Leaving the EU has always been considered a ‘bad idea’ by the majority of Parliament, Government, Whitehall mandarins, the Bank of England, the NHS/BMI, teachers and the NUS…..the list is endless. So Leaving is simply a bad idea…..a different colour Government will not find the silver bullets or Pixie Dust to magic the bad idea into a good one.

  • Of course this analysis totally ignores the possibility that Labour could go into a General Election promising a third referendum. Corbyn wouldn’t be in favour of this policy but he is an avowed Labour democrat who would toe the party line.

    This is why May won’t call an election. It’s too much of a risk that Labour would win hands down based on their Brexit policy, having successfully kept their powder dry until now.