The level of government and political instability has reached such a point that I’m now asked if there will be a General Election on a daily basis. This post is an attempt to lay out what I think the main options are going forwards, and discuss the issues which arise from each one. Undoubtably there will be others that I’ve missed.
Bear in mind, while you read this, that after a particular date in March last year, I became convinced there wasn’t going to be a General Election in 2017. I was wrong. Leaving aside my spectacular predicting abilities (although bear in mind, I did predict before the end of 2015 that Theresa May would be Prime Minister before the end of 2016), let’s take a look at the myriad options that could happen, in no particular order.
1. Theresa May gets the current Brexit deal through
It is reasonably certain that there will be a substantive vote in Parliament in the second week in December about whether or not the current Brexit deal is acceptable. It is also generally accepted that the Prime Minister will lose this vote, based on various analyses of the MPs who vote. And there are actually a few different outcomes possible here. This option relies on one of two routes being successful.
The first is that the vote in December is passed, by some combination of Conservative, Labour and DUP MPs. However, Buzzfeed News estimates at least 90 Conservative MPs have decided to vote against the deal. It appears that the DUP is also minded to vote against the deal, because Northern Ireland is likely to be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of Single Market rules unless something changes in the political agreement.
In order to win this vote, either a significant number of those 90 Conservatives would have to change their mind, or a significant number (at least 90) Labour MPs would have to vote for the deal, or enough Labour MPs would have to abstain. The most likely of these three scenarios is that Labour abstains, and I’m not sure that would be hugely likely because it would open Labour up to being enablers, not being an opposition and would lead to them losing potentially millions of votes at the next General Election.
There is a school of thought that losing this vote could plunge the financial markets into a state of chaos. However markets tend to build such predictions in, and the likelihood of this vote being lost is already probably factored in. But, if there is sufficient shock, then it’s quite possible that the deal is brought back before MPs the following week with a threat of further financial chaos unless they vote it through. At that point it is possible that a number of the 90 will change their mind. However, I think this option is also unlikely.
It’s also very likely that, if the vote is initially lost, it would be put back before the House, possibly tied to a confidence motion in an attempt to unite the Conservatives. Undoubtably if this happens, the 90 would reduce significantly, but possibly not be eliminated altogether. Without the DUP, however, it is possible the Conservatives could still be defeated in a confidence vote, and then clauses in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act come into play – with a second confidence motion to be held within two weeks (see scenario 3 below). In terms of time, this may run into the Christmas holidays – there is no provision for weekends or holidays in the Act. However, losing a confidence vote would be a body blow to May, and she may feel that she has little option but to resign (see scenario 5 below).
2. Theresa May renegotiates the deal and gets it through
Another possibility is that, either before or after losing the December vote, May goes back to the EU and requests changes. However, the EU has a fairly strict negotiating basis, and if the other EU countries do sign off the deal this weekend (which is not guaranteed given Spain’s interventions this morning), they won’t take particularly kindly to restarting negotiations. Bear in mind that the other EU countries also need to take the deal to their parliaments and gain consent. This is unlikely to be as problematic for any of them as it is for the UK, so any renegotiation, should it be considered, would be very time-limited.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the EU is unwilling to bend any of the rules around membership of the Customs Union or Single Market. Those rules have remained constant in the production of this current deal. So it’s not entirely clear what they would be prepared to renegotiate.
However, if a renegotiated deal is achieved, then it’s possible that some of the 90 Conservative rebels would return to the fold. This doesn’t remove the problem for May. It simply lowers the height of the bar she needs to cross, and I suspect the bar will remain too high.
3. Theresa May calls a General Election
Under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, she would need to engineer a two-thirds vote in favour of a motion to call a General Election. 2017 showed that this threshold would be relatively easy to attain, as no MP really likes to show themselves afraid of putting themselves before the electorate.
So this is a possible route through. As of today, the earliest a General Election could be held would be 3 January 2019, as there are strict rules about the number of working days that have to elapse between the dissolution of Parliament and polling day. In reality, if an election were to be called, the vote to call one wouldn’t be before the substantive vote on the deal, meaning that the earliest an election is likely to be is the end of January.
However, the mood of the country still appears to be on the side of Brenda from Bristol – “not another one”. It is unclear whether any new House of Commons would be substantively different from the existing one. The Conservatives would be defending 66 seats which would be classed as “marginal” (where the majority is less than 10% of the vote), and SNP are the challengers in 7 of them, and the Lib Dems in 5. Labour would be defending 54 marginal seats, of which SNP challenge in 6 and Lib Dems in 2. On the face of it, the Conservatives have more to lose than Labour, and they already don’t have a parliamentary majority. It is quite possible that the electorate would be more volatile than in 2017, as this would clearly be a Brexit election.
Spare a thought for the poor politicians who would suddenly feel a need to canvas voters over the Christmas break, and the poor voters who find their festivities interrupted by politicians!
So while this route is possible, the timing is awful and it isn’t clear what the end point would actually be. May could easily find herself in a worse position (remember the last election when the Tories went in with a huge lead in the opinion polls, only to see it evaporate in the last couple of weeks of the campaign?). Labour may not find itself in any position to govern either, as it would need to gain 64 seats to hold a majority of 1 (assuming uniform swings and all sorts of other statistical small print) – ie. it would have to win almost all the seats which are classed as marginal. And if Labour doesn’t appear to offer a significantly different EU policy to the Conservatives, it’s unlikely they will gain enough marginal seats in the south and in metropolitan areas.
4. Theresa May calls a People’s Vote
Personally, given that I fought the last General Election on a policy that we needed a People’s Vote after the deal was published, I could be considered to have some bias towards this option – and you’d be right! But I’ll try to put that aside for this piece.
The established commentators agree that the House of Commons is deadlocked, with no option capable of winning a majority. It should be noted that a People’s Vote doesn’t command a majority in the House of Commons either, and it’s not clear whether parliamentary procedures will allow any substantive vote to be amended to include a vote on the option for this confirmatory referendum. But, if the House is deadlocked with both main parties split, then the 2016 referendum does provide a precedent for going to the people.
Politically I think it would be difficult for the Prime Minister to hide behind “implementing the will of the people” when polls consistently indicate that “the will of the people” has changed, particularly in the last couple of months, so that remaining in the EU now seems to be the preferred option, even allowing for the statistical margins of error. However, almost all of these polls have had their fieldwork done before the deal was published, so it is possible that the Prime Minister’s current charm offensive may swing voters behind it. We have yet to see. It is also unclear why the Prime Minister would want to call a referendum where the option she would feel duty bound to support is currently behind in the polls. People in authority generally only like calling votes they feel pretty sure they will win.
But assuming a confirmatory referendum may be seen as a useful way out of the impasse, there are still some fundamental questions, not least of which is what would be the options presented to the people? The Electoral Commission has strict rules about timescales, and we now would need the other EU countries’ consent to defer Article 50 in order to give time for a referendum. Additionally, while Parliament can pass new laws in one day if necessary, it is likely that any 2019 referendum bill would be contested within both Houses, which would lead to further delays. And would parliamentary approval be needed to request a suspension of Article 50?
As we can see from the expected outcome from the vote on the deal, having Government backing would be no guarantee that any Bill implementing a confirmatory referendum would be passed into law.
And then we would have the campaign, which is likely to be very hard fought indeed. It is possible that opinion would shift during it, one way or the other.
Personally I think any referendum question would have to be between “accept the deal” and “remain in the EU”. That removes the “reject the deal and leave the EU” option, which a large number of voters still seem to want. But the obstacles to getting a referendum remain big, even though they have reduced slightly because of the effective People’s Vote campaign.
5. Theresa May resigns
One of my recurring thoughts is how on earth does she keep going in the face of so much opposition? At what point would she decide enough is enough?
It is a possibility that May decides to resign. I don’t think it’s very likely at all, because I think she has a very strong sense of duty. But assume she does decide to go. The Conservatives would then have to have a quick leadership campaign, simply in order to ensure Government can still function. You can look back at the 2016 Conservative leadership campaign in order to see how long one would ordinarily take – one week for nominations, at least one week for votes within Conservative MPs, and then two months were planned for the members’ votes. Therefore, if May resigns after losing the vote on the deal, the earliest that a new leader would be elected would be the beginning of March.
There would, however, be huge pressure to propose only one candidate. Another possible outcome is that there is one “No Deal” candidate and one “Deal” candidate, but that would still leave two months for an election campaign unless one withdraws, like Angela Leadsom did in July 2016.
But the Tories are not just split – they’re fractured. I do think it unlikely that any openly “Remain” candidate would make it through to any final round. And the understanding is that the Conservative membership seems to be swinging behind the No Deal option – although, again, it’s not clear what effect the production of the deal will have.
And it’s not clear whether the other EU countries would agree to suspend Article 50 in this case. Not doing so would leave any new Prime Minister only a matter of days to vote, renegotiate or ask for a suspension. I think this would cause significant turmoil in the financial markets.
6. Theresa May is deposed
Again, I think this option is very unlikely, for the simple reason that an orchestrated campaign to put letters of no confidence into the 1922 Committee didn’t muster the required 48 letters from MPs. There seems to be no reason why this threshold would be reached in the immediate future if it wasn’t capable of being reached in the last week.
Even if there were enough letters received by Sir Graham Brady MP, the likelihood is that May would win the confidence vote amongst Conservative MPs relatively easily. The question would become how many MPs voted against her – and remember, this would be a secret ballot. If there were more than, say, 100, then lots of Conservative MPs would suddenly find themselves under pressure from their local associations to declare allegiance. In that scenario, I think it very unlikely that the number of MPs who would publicly declare they voted against May would reach anywhere near the number of votes against her.
But, if the series of very unlikely events did take place, the Conservatives would find themselves in the scenario described above, just with an additional week’s delay.
7. A new government forms
I note that calls for a government of national unity have begun, asking the moderates in both Conservative and Labour parties to join, either in a “marriage of convenience” or as the basis of forming a new political party. If this is to happen, personally I think it unlikely that there would be sufficient agreement on any other policy area to form a new party.
But in order for this new grouping / party of MPs to commence governing, they would first have to demonstrate command of the House of Commons. In this scenario, May would either have to essentially become its leader, or would have to step down as Prime Minister and recommend the leader of the group as her successor, or would have to be defeated in a vote of no confidence (which starts to trigger the clauses in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – basically there would be two weeks in which a new government would have to form and win the subsequent confidence vote.)
Again, possible, but I don’t think this is very likely, again because there is no majority for any particular outcome in the House of Commons. Would this new grouping be centred around the deal, around a People’s Vote, around remaining in the EU, or something else?
8. No Deal Brexit
As the law currently stands, the clock is ticking. Brexit day is set for 29 March 2019. If a suspension or revocation of Article 50 hasn’t happened (and been accepted) before that date, the UK is out of the EU. This is therefore the default option. If everything else fails, this happens.
Now it’s very likely that, as the clock ticks down, pressure will grow on either the People’s Vote side to capitulate and accept the deal, or the deal-makers to accept that a People’s Vote is necessary. Currently the deal-makers seem to have slightly more MPs on side than People’s Vote supporters in the Commons. But this can change. After all, very few MPs were calling for a confirmatory referendum in 2017, and now the number seems to be well over 100. In which case we then switch to scenarios 1 or 4 above.
Chris Morris, who is one of the BBC’s political correspondents, said in a podcast last week, that journalists like him are paid to have hindsight, insight and foresight. However he said that he, along with many of his colleagues, simply do not have a clue what is likely to happen in the next few weeks. The future is completely unpredictable. As a small business owner who has customers in the other EU countries, and as a reselected prospective parliamentary candidate, I have to say the current lack of clarity or ability to plan anything is distinctly unhelpful!