Shortly after yesterday’s Budget, a shadow cabinet minister told me what he thought George Osborne’s game was. “It looks like he’s preparing for an early election,” he said. A pre-2020 contest would allow the Tories to go to the country before the dramatic fiscal consolidation planned for 2019-20 (in order to meet Osborne’s surplus rule).
The objection usually cited is the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act introduced by the coalition, which fixes the date of the next election as 7 May 2020. But as the Guardian’s Tom Clark notes, there are two knock-out clauses. The first is a vote by two-thirds of MPs to hold an early election. The Conservatives could propose one and demand that opposition parties support them. “We wouldn’t be able to stand in their way,” a shadow cabinet minister told me.
But even if Labour denied the Tories the opportunity to “cut and run” (or rather run before cutting), the government could still suspend the act by staging a vote of no confidence in itself (as German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s administration did). Finally, the Conservatives could simply use their majority of 12 to repeal the legislation.
Though David Cameron hopes to remain prime minister until 2019, many Tory MPs believe he will be forced to depart before this point (even if he wins June’s EU referendum). Were Osborne to replace him in 2017/18 (becoming the first PM to be chosen by a party selectorate), he would likely be tempted to seek an early mandate from the country (as would an alternative leader). Should Jeremy Corbyn still be Labour leader, he could capitalise on the opposition’s divisions, while also pre-empting a possible recession (which history suggests is due sooner rather than later). A new Conservative Chancellor would have far greater political freedom to either impose further austerity or abandon the surplus rule.
Even before the Budget, Labour MPs were warning of the risk of an early election. Osborne’s fiscal gymnastics have only increased their suspicion. The ability to fight an election at a moment of political convenience was one of the most powerful weapons in a prime minister’s armoury. It would be surprising if a politician as cunning as Osborne did not seek to reclaim it.