After MPs rejected the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement for a third time, Theresa May said: ‘I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House’. This sounded like a hint that she will call a general election if MPs cannot find a way forward or if they opt for one that the Prime Minister cannot accept. Implicit in this is a threat to her party that she will lead them into an election campaign, having previously promised to resign if her deal was passed by Parliament.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), the Prime Minister cannot unilaterally call an election. She needs to get the support of two-thirds of the House of Commons. If her party doesn’t support her in this, then she might have to try and amend the FTPA in order to make it happen.
She must already know that calling an election also means asking the EU for a much longer extension of the Article 50 timetable. This would almost certainly mean the UK taking part in European Parliament elections, which is a reason why the decision for any election would have to be taken quickly. European Parliament elections begin on 23 May, but the EU have pointed out that 12 April is the deadline for preparations for those elections.
Calling a general election makes a long extension unavoidable for a number of reasons. Restrictions on governments during election campaigns means that while ministers remain in charge, and essential business carries on, governments are not meant to ‘initiate any action of a continuing or long-term character’. In the current circumstances, a great deal of Brexit work would be considered ‘essential’, but no deal preparation is so important and so extensive that the Government would have to take the pressure off. Leaving the civil service to carry the can would put them in a constitutionally grim position, particularly in the current circumstances.
The other huge problem is that the European Parliament elections would take place alongside any general election, with guidance for the civil service and arm’s-length bodies banning them in undertaking activity which might compete with the election for public attention. This basically means that they would not be able to communicate on all sorts of European issues throughout the EP elections. Any no deal preparation would be completely undermined.
The legislative progress the Government has currently made would also have to be thrown out if an election was called. The Government could try and get some of its Brexit business through before the ‘wash-up’ period, but more likely is it would have to start again with bills on Trade, Immigration, Agriculture and Fisheries, to name but a few (though the Government has managed to get through a huge amount of the secondary legislation needed for no deal).
The final reason for any delay would be because whatever government is returned – a new one or this one – would probably want to reset negotiations. The Prime Minister has repeatedly been opposed to the idea of a long Brexit delay. If she decides that a general election is the only way to break the Brexit impasse, however, then a long delay is unavoidable.