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Brexit Deconstructed: Snap election would offer no way out for May’s Brexit

Theresa May announced a snap general election last year. Picture: PA - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

As Theresa May’s cabinet divisions continue to stunt the progress of Brexit, JAMES BALL examines the factors which could trigger another snap election.

If you like putting pencil crosses in boxes it’s been a good few years for you.

The UK had a general election in 2015, the Brexit referendum in 2016, and another general election in 2017 – and if you believe newspaper reports from the weekend, we could be facing a snap election in October.

Number 10 denied the reports but there were also emphatic, multiple denials that Theresa May would call an election in 2017 – even just days before she actually called one.

So, just in case, here’s a guide to snap elections: why might we be facing one, how it would work – and whether it could help fix Brexit.

Why might Theresa May call an early election?

May is finding it very hard to get any aspect of Brexit done. Her cabinet is currently deadlocked over two different models for the future UK/EU relationship, despite neither of those options being acceptable to the EU – meaning that she can’t even get her ministers to agree on a totally unworkable ask, let alone any actual compromise.

Given she can’t control her cabinet, it’s perhaps unsurprising May is having trouble with her backbenchers too: she has around a dozen MPs with a high risk of rebelling to either block Brexit or to stay in the single market, and around 50 at risk of rebelling for a hard Brexit. She’s facing them having to vote on these issues in the near future, thanks to repeated rebellions in the House of Lords on Brexit – and it’s not clear she has the votes to rebuff all of these, let alone the votes on any actual Brexit deal later in the year. This is made even harder by May’s reliance on the DUP – who are unlikely to like anything she offers on the Irish border question – to keep her in government.

So, faced with the unavoidable need to get some kind of Brexit deal by the March cliff-edge, and the impossible parliamentary maths she faces in doing that, May’s left with pretty much only one way out: another early election.

How does an early election happen?

Elections used to be called in one of two ways. The first was through votes of no confidence: if the government lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons, and parliamentary maths didn’t let the opposition try to form a coalition, the country would head to the polls. The second was even easier: if the prime minister wanted to call an early election, they could.

Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act that is no longer the case. The new system fixed parliamentary terms at five years, and to call an election earlier than that requires two-thirds of MPs to vote in favour of it (this could in theory be avoided by repealing the Act, but that would also need to pass the Lords).

This makes May’s position in trying to call an election difficult: when she called an election last year, she was a new party leader receiving rapturous write-ups in the media, and with a double-digit polling lead – so her backbenchers were more than happy to vote in favour of an early election.

This time, that’s not the case: MPs with wafer-thin majorities, especially in cities, will be reluctant to vote themselves out of a job. While May can likely rely on the opposition parties to vote in favour of an election – it doesn’t look good for oppositions to try to keep the government going for longer – she could be left in the humiliating position of losing a vote on calling an election. This would be unprecedented in British political history, another bit of uncharted territory to which Brexit leads us.

Once an election is agreed, there are a number of technical requirements which kick in governing the length of the campaign, spending limits, and various other bits of election law – though in a snap election there would be no time to update these for the post-Cambridge Analytica era.

Do early elections tend to work out well for the people calling them?

Generally speaking, they do not: Labour had a tough election in 1950, seeing their majority drop from 146 to just five. Faced with the difficulties of managing such a small parliamentary majority, Attlee took the country to the polls again in the Autumn of 1951, in the hope of a more workable majority. The result was government with a stronger majority of 17 – but it was a Conservative one.

The 1960s give a more optimistic picture for May: Harold Wilson took power in 1964 with a majority of just 4, and opportunistically called an election less than 18 months later to try to get a more workable parliament. It worked – in 1966’s election he picked up a majority of 96, something May at this point can only dream of.

Wilson’s record otherwise was more mixed: after returning to power in February 1974 in a minority government – May’s current position – he took the country back to the polls just eight months later, and netted a tiny majority of three. That dwindled to a minority over the course of a sclerotic four-and-a-half year government which got very little done – and opened the door to the Thatcher era.

What might parliament look like after a snap election?

The danger of trying to guess what the outcome of a snap election would be is that the polls have called the last two general elections wrongly: when May announced the 2017 vote, most experts were forecasting a Conservative majority of at least 50, with many saying it could hit triple figures.

Those polls tightened dramatically and led to last year’s indecisive outcome. Today, the polls generally show the Conservatives with around a three- to four-point poll lead. This would likely see Conservatives in target, urban constituencies lose out to Labour rivals, with the reverse taking place in the commuter belt and small towns.

If the polling numbers stayed where they were now, we would expect the most likely outcome to be a minority government, with it being a virtual toss-up as to whether Labour or the Conservatives would be in the best position to govern. However, either government would be very weak, and would struggle to get any legislation passed – especially not unpopular legislation.

Would a snap election be good for salvaging Brexit?

The grim news is that it probably wouldn’t. The UK’s two biggest political parties are stuck in deadlock against one another, but are polling together at above 80%, keeping smaller parties from breaking through or building the size of their parliamentary blocs. The leaderships of both parties support a hard Brexit, even if their backbenchers (and in Labour’s case members) often do not.

An election at present would likely result in another very weak government with one or the other of those parties at the helm – leaving the UK in almost exactly the same position it is in now, but having run down another two months of negotiation time, when the EU insists we need a deal agreed by October and ratified by March.

When the country is this bitterly divided, we would usually expect very little to happen until a new political leader emerged who broke the deadlock and gained a majority. This time is different: Brexit, at the moment, is happening.

To get any kind of sensible plan together, the big parties would need 
to work together and agree a compromise position they would try to urge all their backbenchers to support. That kind of cross-party work is anathema to both Corbyn and May’s leadership styles – and would be to many of their voters, too.

The politics of Brexit are stuck in a dead end – but at present, an election doesn’t seem to offer any way out.

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