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Might Theresa May call a general election to resolve the Brexit deadlock?

Calling a general election may do little to end the parliamentary stalemate.

The Prime Minister could well conclude the best way she can break the Brexit deadlock is to call a general election, but this may do little to end the parliamentary stalemate, writes Bronwen Maddox. 

The options open to the Prime Minister have narrowed. They may shrink even further next week. It is possible that she chooses to call a general election in response. That would do little to resolve the Brexit dispute. But there are circumstances in which she might find it tempting.

On Tuesday, Theresa May must come back to the House of Commons to explain what she intends to do next, after last week’s rejection of her deal with the European Union by an unprecedented 230 vote margin. She will face a slew of amendments, some of which seek to force the Government to extend the Article 50 deadline.   

If any pass, particularly those that faciitate the Cooper bill, she will be losing control of the Brexit timetable to Parliament. The Cooper bill could complicate her attempts to get a second version of her deal through, by delaying the threat of no deal. Brexiteers might be more inclined to support her for fear of losing Brexit altogether, but those fearing no deal might feel the pressure was off.

Her chances of getting a second version of the deal through are already slim. The EU has not (and shows no signs of being able to) make concessions that would win over enough MPs. 

And then? If the Prime Minister’s Plan B is defeated, she might choose to call a general election. Given the pressure of time, and the party’s divisions, it is entirely possible that she might choose to lead the Conservatives into that battle.   

Once she has weighed up her options, the Prime Minister’s calculation might run like this. She does not want (and has emphatically said she would not support) a second referendum. Apart from anything else, she does not want to give Scotland licence to vote again on the question of independence. She wants to forestall the growing support for a second referendum among certain blocs of MPs.

The Labour leadership is squirming over its party conference commitment to back a new referendum if it lost a vote of no confidence, as it did last week. But the number of MPs overtly backing this option is growing, even if they lack enough control of the process to bring it about, let alone to agree on the hugely contentious choice of questions.   

Nor does the Prime Minister want no deal. She has made clear that she is not among the camp that regards this option with equanimity or even exhilaration. Given her red lines, and her experience of the past two years, she does not expect more concessions from Brussels.   

So calling an election becomes attractive, particularly if she can portray it as her initiative, not something secured by Jeremy Corbyn after defeating the Government in a confidence vote.

What is more, she might choose to lead the party into that election. She might plausibly say there is no time to pick another leader, and that the process would also split the party. Her public commitment was only a promise not to lead the party in the next scheduled general election in 2022.   

Any campaign would inevitably be dominated by Brexit, but it is hard to see either party producing a coherent manifesto on the B-question. The Conservative one, if led by May, might well consist of her already rejected deal. The Labour one would very likely maintain the dogged assertions made by Corbyn: that Labour would somehow extract from negotiations the benefits of being in the Single Market without the constraints.   

The outcome would be hard to predict, not least because it is hard to calculate the impact of the Liberal Democrats, standing as the only party with national reach which backs Remain, on either Labour or the Conservatives. No one would trust the opinion polls.  

The result might indeed be another hung parliament and no end to the Westminster stalemate. Even a government elected with an apparent majority could still struggle to find a majority in Parliament for its version of Brexit.

But for all these immensely unattractive aspects of a general election, it remains the way that the UK has traditionally “asked the people”. It could not be a surprise if the Prime Minister turned to that device if she suffers a new defeat.

May government
Institute for Government

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