Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 26 June 2016

Why (and how) there will be a general election very soon

So as a country we've voted for Brexit.

I didn't of course, I voted for Remain. But we are where we are.

One thing that I have been certain of since the moment it started to become clear that Leave were likely to win on Thursday evening is that there will certainly be an early general election, likely very early. It was obvious Cameron would have to resign and therefore that there would be a new Prime Minister within a few months.

Boris Johnson is favourite to be that new PM but even if he isn't the new leader will face a number of pressures the inexorable logic of which will lead to them having to go to the country sooner rather than later.

Firstly there will be the fact that the manifesto that was voted on in 2015 and the mandate that Cameron had has been utterly eclipsed by this referendum result. It is simply not tenable for a new leader to piggy-back off Cameron's win and ride things out until 2020 when everything has changed so fundamentally.

Secondly, Boris's (or A. N. Other leader's) majority will be wafer thin. Given the incredibly difficult task the new PM will have navigating a course through negotiations with the EU trying to execute a tricky and trap-laden divorce settlement will frankly be impossible when a tiny back-bench rebellion on any one vote could bring the whole house of cards crashing down. They will need a decent working majority as a bare minimum.

Thirdly, more pragmatically the recent precedents are not good for leaders who take over and do not win an election of their own within fairly short order. Gordon Brown bottled it in 2007 and his Premiership was dogged by "The Election that never Was". Jim Callaghan also refused to go to the country in 1978 at a time that was likely much more propitious than waiting it out until a vote of no confidence sunk him less than a year later and issued in The Age of Thatcher. By contrast John Major who had the good fortune to be able to eke out the fag end of Thatcher's third term from the end of 1990 through to early 1992 while he was still relatively popular won a huge mandate of his own.

Fourthly, if it is Boris then it is preposterous to expect that someone who has been banging on for months and months about us being lorded over by "Unelected Brussels Bureaucrats" can expect to remain in office for long unelected. He'll need the mandate to have any real credibility given all his on the record statements on this subject.

But, but, but I hear you splutter. What about the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011? Doesn't that mean that we can't have another general election until 2020?

Well technically yes. Unless one of two things happen, both of which are quite possible.

One is that two thirds of the Commons votes for a dissolution of parliament. So effectively that would require both the Tories and Labour to vote for one. That is perhaps the most likely way it will happen. Because I simply cannot see politically how Labour refuses a general election no matter how frit they might be of the consequences (especially if Corbyn is still leader). Can you imagine the utter derision that will be poured on them if they deny the public the opportunity of a fresh election given how fundamentally the tectonic plates of UK politics have now shifted?

But if Labour make that dreadful miscalculation then all the new PM has to do is call a vote of no confidence in him or herself, bring down his/her own government and then wait two weeks. When no stable alternative government can be formed (which of course with the current parliamentary numbers would be impossible) then an election is triggered by default. A bit more messy but would get us to the same place. You could certainly imagine a politician with the sheer chutzpah of Boris Johnson delighting in the opportunity to use a mechanism like this. To bring down his own government in order to rise phoenix-like from the flames in an even more powerful position.

Finally if the new PM wants to short-circuit all of that they could simply invoke emergency legislation to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. That only requires a bare majority in the Commons and I doubt the Lords would do anything to stop it given the current circumstances. Then they would be free to call an election whenever they wanted, old-school style.

So three different ways to achieve the ends required. I would guess number one will happen but even if it has to be one of the other ways I am certain we will have an election within the next 12 months, quite possibly later this year.

In fact as Thursday evening bled into Friday morning and I became more and more convinced that Brexit was going to win I put some money on with the only remaining online bookies who were still taking bets on this market backing a general election in 2016 and covering one in 2017 too. About 30 minutes after I placed this bet the online site took the market down. I got odds of 10-1 for both bets.

I put my money where my mouth is. Mark my words, we'll be going to the polls again before very long.

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