25 January 2019

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.

Comments

A general election would not resolve issues. Increasingly I am of the view that a new and different referendum should be put to the people. Not least because it is crucial to garner more public support and ownership to actually deliver the eventual change. Where voters would be asked that either UK should leave and implement the negotiated deal or that UK should stay in the EU if at least a specified majority (e.g. 55%) votes cast are for it. Such an approach seems to me to address concerns on democracy and the need in my view to establish there is sufficient support to deliver the change programme.

i agree that May could find an election more palatable than a second referendum - for the Scotland and other reasons - and wouldn't rule it out. but the problem remains the same as in 2017. that election should have been fought on the issue of brexit, but the party divisions and our electoral system make that almost impossible.

I still think a General Election is the way forward. If the Parliamentary maths do not add up and Theresa May's government is unable to pass key legislation on something arguably more important even then the budget then a new Parliament is required. A majority government of either colour would at least have a better chance of getting some kind of result than this one although no guaranteees. If not perhaps try a new cross party approach with a National Government could be tried that should have been attempted from the start.

A referendum is fraught with legitimacy issues. As a Leaver who supports Mrs May's deal, I may well decide not to vote in any proposed referendum. In fact, I can see many leavers never voting again if our politicians refuse to implement the instruction they were given in 2016 and carry through with promises made at the last election. And as a Labour Party member, I urge our leadership to support May's deal, yet fight tooth and nail to defend workers' rights after we have left the EU, preferably by unseating the Government in alliance with other opposition Parties.

A general election would also give a reason to the EU for allowing an extension to Article 50. It would be less easy for it to agree such an initiative at a request from parliament.

Calling a general election is her nuclear option and she'd be wise to choose it. There'll never be a better moment for her. Labour are totally unelectable. The LDs will lose some of their vote to the so-called Independents. The latter haven't got their act together (if they even have one), and they've shown themselves as hypocrites saying they'd support May in a no confidence vote because of course an election is the last thing they want. She'll have to put up with no deal, but that should be something she'd be willing to accept with the Tories staying in power, because of course, if she delays calling the election until March 8, by the time a new government (of any sort) was in power March 29 would have passed and we'd be out. A win-win situation for her.

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