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Explainer: How likely is an early election in the UK and when is it likely to happen?

Will he? Won’t he?

WILL HE? WON’T he? 

Westminster is abuzz with talk of whether there’ll be an early election and whether Boris Johnson will time it to force through a no-deal Brexit. 

Many MPs are deeply opposed to his threat to take the UK out of the EU on 31 October no matter what, with some working on a plan to take over Commons business in the coming weeks and legislate to avert a no-deal exit.

There’s speculation that Johnson could call an early election to strengthen his mandate for a no-deal.

And there’s also a chance that, as part of a bid to further delay Brexit, the opposition will attempt to form a coalition with some rebel Tories to topple Johnson and force an election once parliament returns in the first week of September.

However it all develops, it’s likely Johnson will be the figure with most control over the timing of any election, and he could set the date for after 31 October when, as things currently stand, a no-deal exit will be the default outcome.

So how likely is a no-deal Brexit? 

Johnson has been unwavering in his assertion that the UK will exit the European Union “do or die” by the current deadline of 31 October.

The standoff between the two sides now appears intractable: Johnson and his newly-minted ministers say the backstop has to go while the EU leadership continues to insist that won’t happen and that the thrice-rejected withdrawal deal remains the only show in town. 

Both sides have been stepping up preparations for a disorderly split.

ITV political editor Robert Peston summed up the current state of affairs pretty succinctly in a blog post this afternoon: 

As one Brussels official confirmed to me, even if EU leaders and especially Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were prepared to do as Johnson asks and rip up the backstop – which they most definitely are not – they could not do so unless Johnson offered a detailed proposal for what would replace the backstop – and he says both that he can’t and won’t.

Boris Johnson holds roundtable on crime Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Can parliament stop it? 

MPs have previously voted against a no-deal Brexit, but it still remains the default scenario if no divorce agreement is struck with the EU.

Parliament could in the first instance try to pass laws to force the government to delay or even reverse Brexit.

Think-tank the Institute for Government has warned in a new report however that the window of opportunity is closing fast. There’s not much time left in the calendar, even if the cross-party group of MPs opposed to no-deal manages to call off the traditional autumn recess for party conferences. 

According to the report

MPs may want to repeat the process that led to the ‘Cooper Act’ in March, which forced the government to seek an extension (although it had already requested an extension before the Act came into law). But as the government controls most of the time in the Commons there are limited opportunities for MPs to initiate this process, even if the Speaker helps facilitate such a move.
Cancelling the planned conference recess alone will not necessarily create new opportunities.

Jeremy Corbyn could also call a confidence vote as part of an alternative bid to avert a no-deal. 

While any MP can put a no confidence motion forward, they have no guarantee it will be debated. If Corbyn, as leader of the opposition, tabled one it would have to be and the government would be compelled to clear time in the Commons.  

What happens in a confidence vote? 

If Johnson loses a confidence vote, he would have 14 days to prove he had the support of a majority of MPs or call an election.

Corbyn could attempt to secure a majority too. A far less likely scenario could see a compromise candidate put forward to lead a new government. Given the tribal nature of politics in the UK, however, it’s unlikely opposition parties and rebel Tories would be able to agree on an alternative candidate.

The 14-day procedure, introduced under the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, has never been used before and there is a debate as to how it would work.

Catherine Haddon of the Institute for Government says that even if an alternative prime minister were found, Johnson would have to first resign – and he could refuse.

In this case, or if no alternative were chosen, he could stay on for the 14 days and call an election at the time of his choosing.

Here’s how the Institute for Government sets out the current state of affairs (once again, this is from the report mentioned in the section above):

The process governing no confidence motions under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has not been tested. If passed, it would trigger a 14-day period during which time MPs could try to form a ‘government of national unity’. Failing this, there will be a general election – but it is unclear what would happen if Johnson refused to follow constitutional convention to resign if an alternative majority was possible.
This could risk dragging the Queen into politics.

Queen summer residence at Balmoral 2019 Source: PA Wire/PA Images

An election before or after Brexit? 

Analysis by the House of Commons library suggests there is time for a new government to be in place before October 31 – but time is tight.

An election campaign must last a minimum of 25 working days, plus a day or two for the Queen to formally dissolve parliament.

If forced to hold a vote, Johnson has the power to set the date of the election, and might delay.

One of his top aides, Dominic Cummings, believes this is an option if parliament plays hardball, according to a Sunday Telegraph report last weekend. Cummings, who’s also the former head of the Vote Leave campaign, is reported to have said:  

They don’t realise that if there is a no-confidence vote in September or October, we’ll call an election for after the 31st and leave anyway.

MPs could however use the 14 days after a confidence vote to pass legislation demanding an early election – or a Brexit delay.

It’s being speculated in the Spectator today that 10 October is Johnson’s best bet for holding a snap election, if he wanted to take control of the process himself from the outset.  

With the support of two thirds of MPs, he could call an election in early September and fix the October date – leaving rivals unable to enact any legislation while parliament is dissolved and, once he receives a mandate, putting Johnson firmly in the driving seat for the EU summit due to be held later in October.

Or so the theory goes. 

Who might win an election? 

Traditional party support has splintered in the years since the Brexit vote, making the final makeup of the next House of Commons difficult to call. 

Johnson’s team are said to be working up a campaign pitching “people versus politicians”, promising to deliver Brexit. But if parliamentary proceedings this year have taught us anything it’s that that there’s still a wide range of opinions on the matter on the Tory benches. 

Labour is struggling with divisions over Brexit, coupled with separate rows over anti-Semitism in the party and confidence in Corbyn’s leadership – but the party did better than expected in 2017 and could do so again. 

The divisions in the two main parties leave an opportunity for smaller parties with clear positions on Brexit to make gains.

The eurosceptic vote risks being split between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which topped the polls in May’s European elections. 

A revamped Lib Dems, who back remain, are on course to gain seats. Anti-Brexit parties are also discussing an alliance that could take seats from Labour and the Tories 

A poll this week put support for the Conservatives on 31% and Labour on 27% with the Brexit Party and Lib Dems on 16% each. 

What’s been happening today?  

Speculation about how the new session of parliament will play out stepped up a gear today as Corbyn threw down the gauntlet to opposition parties, calling on them to back his no-confidence bid and install him as a caretaker PM. 

The Labour leader said that if he won a no-confidence motion he planned to seek an extension to Article 50, after which he would attempt to call a general election (again, this would require a two-thirds majority under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act).

Labour would campaign for a second referendum in that election, Corbyn’s letter to other party leaders and senior backbenchers said.

Based on the mixed reaction so far to the Corbyn letter, at this moment it appears unlikely he’ll have enough support. In the most damning response from leaders of other groupings Change UK’s Anna Soubry said the Labour leader ”doesn’t even command respect and support from his own party never mind across the political divide”.

Jo Swinson, the new leader of the Lib Dems, dismissed the idea out of hand – describing the plan as nonsense. Other parties, including Scotland’s SNP and Plaid Cymru of Wales have been more amenable.

The BBC’s political correspondent Tom Barton said today it appeared the numbers weren’t stacking up for the Labour leader. 

“There are plenty of MPs who say they want to stop a no-deal Brexit but getting them to agree on how to do it – that’s a different matter altogether,” he added. 

Now what? 

Who knows.

But here are some dates to keep an eye on: 

  • 3 September: MPs are back on duty and this is the first possible date for the tabling of Corbyn’s no confidence motion 
  • 6 September: A legal challenge by a group of MPs attempting to prevent Johnson from proroguing parliament will be heard in a Scottish court 
  • 9 September: We can expect MPs opposed to no deal Brexit to launch their legislative bid to take over Commons business on this date. Unless the house has already voted to hold an election, that is. 

Includes reporting from © – AFP 2019 

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About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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