25 October 2019

Ahead of Boris Johnson’s third attempt to force Parliament to agree to a general election, Dr Catherine Haddon weighs up the options available to the prime minister to secure a pre-Christmas showdown at the ballot box.

The prime minister wants to hold a general election – and he wants to hold one this side of Christmas. But time is running out.

A general election requires a mandatory 25 working days for the campaign period. This means a 12 December election would need to be voted on by MPs by 6 November. That is two weeks away. And 12 December may be the latest feasible date to hold an election before the expected 31 January Brexit extension comes to an end. Any election in January, even if held right up against the deadline, would mean campaigning over Christmas – a decidedly non-festive move which may not go down well the voters.

So how can Boris Johnson ensure his chosen pre-Christmas date?

The prime minister’s first option is a vote under FTPA for an early election

Getting to an election is a significant arithmetical challenge for Boris Johnson. The government is bringing just such a vote on Monday. Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act he needs two-thirds of MPs to vote for an election. So how does he reach that 434 total?

The PM can count on 288 Conservatives, while some the of the 21 MPs who lost the Tory whip plus the 10 DUP MPs may back him. But even if – and it’s a big if – the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Lib Dems vote in favour that still requires the support of nearly 80 Labour MPs.

For now, however, Jeremy Corbyn has said he won’t back an election until a no deal Brexit is off the table. The Labour party is massively divided about having the vote at all: its MPs are in disagreement over whether it would be better to ‘get Brexit done’ first, whether the leadership should push for a referendum, or the need to get no deal ‘off the table’ entirely –  thought it is not exactly clear what that means. But the pressure on Labour to have the election they have been demanding for two years may yet prove irresistible.

They are also concerned that giving Johnson an election – which is still in the gift of the PM – might lead to the PM setting an entirely different date. For while a Commons vote allows an election, the PM advises the Palace when the election should be – and so could reignite the risk of no deal exit. The question is whether Johnson can provide further assurances – or whether opposition parties will feel the danger has passed after the Halloween deadline.

The second option would normally be unimaginable – a PM bringing a vote of confidence in his own government

The other route to an early election under FTPA is through a vote of no confidence. Losing this vote triggers a 14-day period in which the government – either the same one or a new one if it can be formed – has to win a second vote of confidence. If that doesn’t happen, then an early election is triggered.

Leaving aside the optics of a government bringing a no confidence motion in itself, the major problem with this option is that it rules out Johnson’s desire for an election before Christmas. The 14-day period plus the campaign period takes us well beyond 12 December.

The third option is a short bill which legislates for an early general election – if Johnson doesn’t bring one, someone else might

Johnson could bypass the FTPA by bringing in a short bill which sets aside that Act in this instance and legislates for an early election. This was an option which Theresa May considered in 2017.

For this to pass, Johnson would only need a simple majority – one which he might secure with the support of the SNP, who may be more amenable to an election once the extension is in place, even if Labour are still resisting.

However, the risk for Johnson is that such a bill can be amended. There may be amendments he might be prepared to accept. Some MPs, who worry that the PM could shift the date of polling day once they have voted for an election, could attempt to legislate for the date of the election.

But it might also be amended in ways that the government do not agree, such as introducing votes for 16 and 17 year-old-olds or even trying to legislate for a referendum.

This might be a route that others attempt. MPs could use the same method as the EU Withdrawal (No.2) Act (Benn Act) to introduce a short bill which sets the date for an election.  

The prime minister says he wants a general election. The leader of the opposition says he wants a general election. But neither seem to trust each other to find the way to one.