A general election or Brexit?

London Eye morphs into EU flag 1st January 2019Can the UK have a general election before we leave the EU on 29th March 2019?

The UK must have a general election again on Thursday 2nd June 2022.

The only way in which the UK can have a general election before then, is if either two-thirds of the MPs in the House of Commons vote for it (433 MPs, give or take a few Sinn Féin) or if the government loses two votes of confidence, a fortnight apart.

Current state of the parties in the Commons:

The Tories (317 MPs) have the DUP (10 MPs), who will vote with them on any confidence vote: 327.

Labour (257 MPs) have, for a confidence vote against the government, the SNP (35 MPs), the Liberal Democrats (11 MPs), Plaid Cymru (4 MPs), and one Green MP. Total: 308.

The DUP have no reason to vote for an early general election. If they sit tight, they get the rest of the billion pounds Theresa May had to promise them in June 2017. If they vote out the Tories, some of them may lose their seats, and they certainly won’t get the rest of their money.

But with regard to May’s deal – which she has said will be voted on in the Commons on 14th January – the DUP almost certainly won’t vote for it, even though their deal said they would: “the DUP also agrees to support the government on legislation pertaining to the UK’s exit from the EU“: but the Tories still need the DUP in order to stay in power til June 2022, and they are unlikely to alienate the DUP by refusing the money, so long as the DUP keep the Tories in government.

Run the numbers again.

If Theresa May has bribed or begged or bullied every single Tory MP into voting for her deal (a knighthood for John Redwood, a privy councillor post for Sir Edward Leigh, and so on), and if the 10 DUP MPs only abstain and don’t vote against her,Theresa May gets her deal ratified by the Commons with a majority of 10.

But, are Jacob Rees-Mogg and his crew of vultures going to vote for May’s deal when the alternative is crashing out of the EU in no-deal Brexit, which is what they actually want?

That seems unlikely.

There are perhaps 20 Brexiter Labour MPs who might vote for May’s deal.

It’s just a question, then, of how many of the Tory hard-Brexit MPs will vote against their own government on this, no matter what bribes Theresa May throws at their heads. (Newly-knighted Sir John Redwood claims he still won’t vote for the deal:it remains to be seen if in fact he stays bought.) Disgraced former Defence minister Dr Liam Fox – still Cabinet Minister for Trade, though he seems to spend most of his time cheerleading EU trade deals – reckons the chances of May’s deal passing at 50/50.

Assuming that May does have the vote on her deal on 14th January, and she will push it later if she thinks she can get away with that, the only way it looks like the deal can be ratified by the Commons is if Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Opposition, calls the vote on the Brexit deal a vote of confidence in the government -which would almost certainly lockstep the Tories and the DUP behind it and give it a narrow win.

Jeremy Corbyn 2017If Corbyn is dead set on trying to have a general election before Brexit Day, he may gamble on enough of the Rees-Mogg crew and the DUP hating May’s deal enough to refuse to vote for it even if that means risking a general election.

According to the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, if the government loses a confidence vote in the House of Commons, say on Monday 14th January, this no-confidence vote has to be confirmed a fortnight later. Corbyn with his 257 MPs plus 51 more maybes, on Monday 28th January, faces 317 Tory MPs and 10 DUP MPs all determined not to have a general election … and he loses.

The Prime Minister is the leader of the party that can command the confidence of the Commons; and with the numbers as they presently are, Corbyn cannot win the second no-confidence vote even if he wins the first.

This might go differently if Corbyn were offering something different to Theresa May with regard to Brexit, but Corbyn’s line has been consistently that the UK is leaving the EU because of the 23rd June 2016 referendum, and either Theresa May should go negotiate a better deal in Brussels or she should let him do it.

The EU has made clear that May’s deal is the only deal on the table for the UK as it leaves the EU. The UK has the legal option to unilaterally revoke Article 50 before 29th March 2019 and remain in the EU, and EU-27 have the option of agreeing to delay the date of the Article 50 exit if they see good cause, but the choices ahead for the UK are:

  • May’s deal
  • leave with no deal
  • or Remain.

However, let’s suppose Jeremy Corbyn convinces enough Tory MPs that they should maybe let him try to negotiate afresh with the EU that they abstain when the second vote of confidence happens and presto, there’s going to be a general election.

On Thursday 7th March, if Parliament is dissolved and a Royal Proclamation issued practically on the spot, the UK goes to the polls and elects a new Parliament: a week later – assuming either Labour or Conservatives got or could fudge together a clear majority – the House of Commons sits again – on Tuesday 12th March, exactly two weeks and three days before the UK leaves the EU, and still without a withdrawal agreement.

EU hat QueenThe State Opening of Parliament, when the Queen’s Speech declares what her government will do, is ordinarily not for two or three weeks after the Commons reassembles: and that would take us into April. It’s already too late for a general election to stop Brexit.

The hypothetical support of enough Tory MPs for Corbyn to win a second vote of confidence on 28th January, depends squarely on Corbyn being able to convince enough Tory MPs that he is a better choice than Theresa May on Brexit. So he would have to commit – and convince a hostile audience – that in a matter of weeks he would get better deal than Theresa May did in two years: or that he would definitely revoke Article 50 and at least save the UK from Brexit.

Now, for something like a General Election or a UK-wide referendum,
EU-27 might well agree that they will give the UK an extension on Brexit Day.

But on Thursday 23rd May this year, if the UK is still a member of the European Union, we would be going to the polls for the 2019 EU Parliamentary elections. Twenty-two of the seats for UK MEPs have already been re-apportioned to other EU-27 countries: the remaining 50 seats are held vacant for future EU enlargement or for pan-Europe elections.

If the UK doesn’t leave the EU, decisions will have to be made about the 72 MEPs the UK is entitled to, who would certainly have to be selected and ready to campaign for election as soon as possible: the beginning of February would be routine, but anything later than April would be impossible.

Corbyn talks of a new deal. But the EU have already said there isn’t one. If Corbyn wins a general election in March and is drafting a Queen’s Speech for April, his only options are, still:

  • May’s deal, now to be called Corbyn’s deal, which has already been rejected in the Commons by MPs Corbyn is depending on for support
  • leave with no deal – exactly the reverse of a “jobs first” Brexit
  • or revoke Article 50, Remain in the EU, and hastily select candidates for the EU elections in May.

And, just to be clear; If Theresa May puts off the vote on her deal by even another week beyond 14th January, it is then too late for Jeremy Corbyn to hope for a general election at all.

Is it too late for a People’s Vote? Well, let’s look at that tomorrow.

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3 Comments

Filed under Brexit, Elections, EU referendum, European politics

3 responses to “A general election or Brexit?

  1. Liam Davenport

    Good post.

    I think the DUP are more sanguine about an election than their bedfellows. The UUP still aren’t a threat to them; the RHI scandal is not as prominent as it was; Fianna Fáil will probably stand and split the nationalist vote for them; and they might even expect a (modest) influx of pro-life voters after Sinn Féin’s U-turn on abortion rights. Still, would they think they can do better than 10/18? Would be nice if anyone would ever poll NI voting intention.

    Do we actually know how the mechanics of seeking an extension are likely to work? Can May do it unilaterally, or do you need to wrangle enough MPs for that as well (and if so, how long would that take)? What if Parliament votes to mandate an extension but the PM refuses to seek one?

    If we do get an extension, we still need to amend our own Withdrawal Bill, since the date sits there as well as within the Article 50 timetable. A formality perhaps, but another vote to wrangle and more time we don’t necessarily have.

    • Since it’s never happened before, no one really knows what the process would be, but I think a reasonable guess is that the UK government would say to the EU “We are having a general election and we would prefer not to Brexit before the next government is formed – the election having been triggered by Brexit, it is quite possible the new government might have new decisions about Brexit.”

      If EU-27 agreed unanimously that this was reasonable, a date would be fixed (likely by EU-27 in consultation with the UK) and that would be the new Brexit Day on which the UK leaves the EU.

      As you say, there would also have to be an amendment on the Withdrawal Act done before Parliament actually dissolved, but that needn’t specify a date – just an acknowledgement that this had changed and the date would be fixed in supplementary regulations, or some such.

      Likewise for a referendum. The UK government starts the process of legislating a referendum for the people to choose between Leave and Remain, a representative explains the situation to the EU, EU-27 unanimously agree that this is a reasonable reason to delay Brexit Day, and a new date is fixed on.

      A majority vote by MPs in the Commons is in theory something the Prime Minister who holds the Crown Powers in Parliament can in fact just ignore, but hopefully not in practice.

    • The UK government would have to ask EU-27 for an extension on Brexit Day, which all 27 would have to unanimously agree to.

      I think the UK would have to properly launch the general election or the referendum before requesting, since honestly, I don’t think the EU thinks much of the UK government for keeping its word.

      A majority of MPs voting in Parliament isn’t the UK government, but while a Prime Minister can ignore a majority vote in the Commons instructing the government to do something, it’s generally considered unwise.

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