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21 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

How the Conservatives could be reluctantly forced into calling an early general election

Returning to the polling booths could deepen the current parliamentary stalemate, rather than ease it.

By Stephen Bush

The hung parliament of February 1974 lasted a little over seven months. The hung parliament of 2010 went the full five years. Which way will the hung parliament of 2017 go? The Sunday Times’ Caroline Wheeler has caused a stir at Westminster after repeating that growing numbers of Conservative MPs are preparing for an early contest.

Could it actually happen? While the Conservatives have, in recent months, re-established a small but consistent lead in the four- to five-point mark the spectre of what happened to a far bigger lead last time is on almost every Tory mind. And even if that lead materialises in the popular vote it’s easy to conceive of a scenario whereby the Conservatives end the election in a worse position than they have now.

Don’t forget that while Theresa May failed to get a 1983 or 1997 style win in England and Wales, Arlene Foster did manage a landslide win in Northern Ireland. Let’s say the DUP tide comes in even a little bit – even a still historically impressive haul of eight seats would make the continuation of the Conservatives in office a tricky prospect. Then imagine that the Liberal Democrats are little bit more efficient in squeezing the Labour vote in, say, Richmond, Cheadle and St Ives. Labour advance only a little, gaining Plymouth Moor View, Battersea, and, in the shock of the night, Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford seat.

Then suddenly the stalemate is deepened rather than eased. Perhaps if the chips fall the right way, a very precarious Tory hold on power is exchanged for a parliament in which no viable governing coalition can be found or the only plausible prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn. So can you see why, as Katy Balls explains in greater detail over at the Spectator, Tory MPs are reluctant to spin the wheel on an early election.

But they may be forced into one. As well as the government’s ongoing headache over the customs union, there’s that meaningful vote to reckon with.

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The Labour leadership still aren’t entirely sure what they are going to do when the vote comes to the Commons, but I can’t convince myself of a hypothetical situation where Labour don’t vote against it. It’s the only way they can balance the competing interests and desires within both the parliamentary Labour party and their electoral coalition. Keir Starmer will doubtless draw up a clever form of words that most Labour MPs will be able to rally around, though what those words actually mean will be very different in different parts of the country.

Then the question becomes whether or not Theresa May can negotiate a Brexit deal that unites the whole of the Conservative party. When push comes to shove, it’s hard to see how there will be enough Tory Remainers willing to rebel to stop that vote passing. But the margins are very fine, and an election that no Conservative really wants might yet be forced upon them.

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