I went down a bit of a rabbit hole this week. Want to join me?
It started with a rather enjoyable blog by John Rowland – ‘After NICS: are we heading for another General Election?’.
At first, I just wanted to know if it would be feasible to call an early General Election and how the Government could go about it. I concluded it was possible, if messy.
This time, I wanted to know if it was practical in terms of delivering Brexit – an early General Election could deliver a strong majority but it could also mean the loss of up to two months working time for both Government and Parliament. Is this manageable?
To form a view I’ve looked at:
- What we know regarding the current timetable for Brexit, and how the timetable for a 2020 and a 2017 General Election would mesh.
- How much time Government and Parliament will need to pass primary and secondary legislation needed to facilitate the UK’s departure from the EU.
- The Government’s existing legislative commitments and how quickly they can be wrapped up.
- Rules on purdah and what impact these could have on negotiations with the EU.
And my conclusion is that it can be managed, but if the Government is going to go for it an election must be called within two months, and must immediately start working with parliamentary business managers to clear the decks.
For those wanting to bet on it – I believe an early May election is the least disruptive option, but a June election is feasible. And if you want specific dates, these are my guesses:
- Thursday 11th May
- Thursday 22nd June
- Thursday 29th June
[LATER ADDITION: John Rowland and Luke Akehurst make excellent point that there are local polls on Thursday 4th May. To coincide with those, Parliament would need to be dissolved on 28 March and before that pass legislation to allow Fixed Term Parliaments Act to be bypassed, and clear up remaining legislation that they are committed to. For me that feels too tight].
Watch Government closely in the final week of March not only for triggering Article 50 but also for clues that there will be another big announcement. If Easter comes and goes and parliament seems to be moving at a normal pace then I suspect we’re in it for the long haul to 2020.
Is it likely that No.10 is even discussing it?
Ultimately, this is a decision that will rest with Theresa May. The Prime Minister has said she does “not plan” nor “wish” for an early General Election and she certainly won’t like the messiness. However, having experienced wrangling with Parliament over Article 50, everyone has a much clearer sense of how difficult things may be.
Those that were already pro an early General Election will have stepped up their lobbying and business managers should be providing context – my hope is that they are saying ‘If we are to go for this, we need to take a decision by Easter. After that the decision has been taken for us’.
A 2020 General Election could cause problems for the Conservatives
If the objective is to ensure stability now, and maximise the chances of a Conservative Government, commanding a strong majority and public support, then the prudent choice would be to call a General Election now.
Separate of the possibility of Labour’s recovery, the Conservatives may not be in as strong a position in 2020 as they are now.
Here are the scenarios:
- Negotiations have taken longer than the two years and an extension was required – there’s been no ‘settling down’ period before the May 2020 General Election, and the government is vulnerable to the public’s judgement of how negotiations are going.
- The UK’s departure from the EU has gone smoothly and the Government is seen to have done a competent job. Public mood settles and turns to domestic matters where the Government’s legacy is less substantial – Brexit absorbed so much capacity and thinking that little progress has been made.
- The UK’s departure from the EU has not gone smoothly and there have been negative consequences, at least in the short term. Things may settle but the public are starting to blame the Government.
If the Government does want an early election, then a General Election must be called within two months.
The Government cannot afford to wait any longer than that – if it does it reduces the window for Parliament to work through the Great Repeal Bill and seven separate bills covering immigration, tax, agriculture, trade and customs regimes, fisheries, data protection and sanctions (based on list leaked to The Times).
On the current timeline, Parliament will have around 15 calendar months to pass the necessary legislation: the Bills will be published sometime from June, following the Queen’s Speech, and will need to be wrapped up by late 2018 so that attention can shift to secondary legislation and the detail. This is essential – otherwise numerous industries and sectors will be left in the dark as to how they will be regulated.
A May or June General Election shaves off two months, but any later than that and the the combined impact of the General Election, parliamentary recess, party conferences, and the need to reintroduce legislation makes it almost impossible to get the work done.
It’s more convenient to be constrained by purdah now then at any point in the next two years
Based on previous Cabinet Office guidance, purdah should not interfere in Ministers and officials engaging with the European Union, but major decisions and announcements will need to be avoided. This supports an earlier General Election rather than waiting for negotiations to get seriously underway, when such limitations could be an encumbrance (and further frustrate those we are negotiating with).
The earliest date for an early General Election is early May.
The Government is coming to the end of its current legislative programme – announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech – but it needs until the end of March to get the majority of its legislation passed.
A quick review of last year’s Queen’s Speech reveals that of the 15 Bills announced two have been dropped, two delayed, three passed, and five are close to completing their progress through Parliament. These five could feasibly be wrapped up by the end of March.
If the Government decides that’s good enough, then it would make sense to pass legislation for an early General Election before Parliament rises for Easter on 30th March. That gives us a window of the w/c 8th May for a General Election.
If however the Government wants to nudge one more Bill over the line – the Criminal Finances Bill – then the Lords will need about three more weeks to deliberate after the Easter recess. Parliament could then be dissolved in the w/c 15th or 22nd May, which would lead to a General Election on 22nd or 29th June (assuming a Thursday).
If the Government was to leave it any later, it would be vulnerable to the accusation that it was at best limiting scrutiny of its actions and at worst undermining the UK’s future by failing to ensure essential legislation necessary for Brexit receives sufficient consideration.