How messy could it get trying to hold an early General Election

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You know you’ve enjoyed an article when it starts sparking ideas, and John Rowland’s consistently excellent blog did just that tonight.

In his article – ‘After NICS: are we heading for another General Election?’ – John explores the debate about the logic of Theresa May going to the country to “secure a solid and more biddable majority”. John’s opinion is that “May wouldn’t want the fuss and disruption of an election if she can avoid it”, but a colleague of his has money riding on a 2017 election.

Separate of the politics of such a decision, would this be possible? One of the things the Whips Office gave me was a great love of plotting out the sheer practicalities of getting business done.

I therefore wanted to provide a bit of context focussing purely on what we know.

Here I wanted to look at the framework set by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. I’ll be back later in the week looking at the timetable for a general election within the timetable for Brexit and other key milestones.

Can the Prime Minister call an election?

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 sets the date for each general election as the “first Thursday in May in the fifth calendar year” following the last polling day.

Under that Act to call an early general election, the Government has two options, neither of which look particularly good.

First, the Government could bring a motion of ‘no confidence’ in itself – with a simple majority the deed would be done. The problem is that the Government would have to hope that none of its MPs rebel and that the general public understand that this is just for procedural purposes and does not represent the Conservative Party’s nor the Prime Minister’s actual opinion.

Alternatively, a motion calling for an early election could be passed with the backing of two thirds of MPs (including vacant seats). That’s 434 MPs. The Conservatives have 330 so they would need to find an additional 104 that are willing to take the risk.

  • The Liberal Democrats back in July 2016 called for an early general election, emphasising that Theresa May has no personal mandate. That’s 9.
  • The Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party, often relied upon by the Conservatives to make up voting numbers, are unlikely to want to risk it given the recent shock of the Northern Ireland elections.
  • The Scottish National Party could bring 54 to the table, and perhaps use it as an opportunity to call on the electorate to demonstrate support for a second Independence Referendum – however with 54 of the 59 available seats already theirs, and the remaining 4 belonging to Labour, it is difficult to see what message exactly they could hope to convey. Gaining a few more seats will not be particularly telling, whilst losing some can only be seen as a blow to confidence.
  • That leaves Labour. With 229 seats, it would require a very substantial chunk of the Party to believe this is a good time for them to go to the polls. Enough said.

There are two other options.

To repeal the Bill – which would require a parliamentary majority and that there are very few Conservative MPs who support fixed term parliaments on a matter of principle – and then pass a new Act to govern future elections. As Lord Norton of Louth pointed out previously, the Septennial Act 1715 which governed elections previously is already gone – it does not simply come back into being. We would need new legislation to operate by.)

Or, as Professor Robert Hazell of University College London’s Constitution Unit suggested in July 2016 there could be the option of a “one clause bill” which bypasses the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act for just the next election.

Putting aside that it would probably have to have at least a handful of clauses – for example setting out the intervals between dissolution and polling day – a simple majority would be required for this and it allows those Conservative MPs, who believe in the principle of fixed term parliaments to salvage some face, with a small dash of sophistry! It would though make a mockery of the legislation, and would probably indicate repeal will eventually come.

What questions should No.10 be asking right now?

In essence it is all rather messy and in the Westminster bubble will create a great big furore, with much teeth-sucking by people that like constitutional issues (like me!).

However, while the messiness is something Theresa May is likely to hate at a personal level, combined with the fact that No.10 has ruled it out for now, there will be those around her continually emphasising that the public simply won’t care about the legislative mess.

In such a situation my instinct is that she will be calling for more analysis – more analysis of how the Conservative are likely to poll, given that some voters may use it for a EU referendum re-run – but also more information on how the benefits of an early poll and a clear majority, balance with potential further practical problems that could arise from losing a great deal of parliamentary time.

The questions No.10 should be asking are…

  • To what extent could the timetable determined by Brexit negotiations, and the timetable for a general election be made to work alongside each other?
  • Would the rules on purdah hamstring the government in its Brexit negotiations? What would be the limitations on civil servants during this period?
  • What existing legislative commitments has the government made which HAVE to to be met before Parliament is dissolved?

And given all of the above, what exactly is the window in 2017 when a general election could happen?

I’ll get back to you on Friday!

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