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22 September 2018

Theresa May’s parliamentary position is fraught but another election still looks unlikely

It's hard to see how the Conservative Party could credibly trigger another without shredding what's left of their brand. 

By Stephen Bush

One of the important things I got wrong about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was, while I understood its legal ramifications, I hadn’t fully grappled with the political dimension: while, in theory, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act gives the opposition party a veto over whether to call an early election, in practice, the Opposition can’t ever pass up an opportunity to defeat the government, no matter how bleak the political situation may look.

There is no justification that any Opposition leader will ever be able to give to turning down an early contest should the executive want one.

The Act does, however, change politics in significant ways, by making the executive significantly harder to attack from outside than it was beforehand. Short of either the collapse of the Conservative Party’s pact with the DUP, or a breakaway from within the Tory party, it’s very hard to sketch out a plausible scenario in which the government is forced into an election through the loss of a confidence vote.

The reason for that is that when the Act was being written into law, David Cameron and George Osborne expected that the Liberal Democrats would pull out of the coalition at least a year before the parliament’s allotted end in order to give themselves time to differentiate themselves from their senior coalition partners. So although fixed term parliaments are a longstanding Liberal Democrat policy ask, the detail of the law was written with one eye to a year in which a minority Conservative government might have to live hand-to-mouth if an early election was not in Tory interests.

But the flipside of that is  to get an early election, the Prime Minister of the day has to have a justification, however feeble. (There’s an irony in that May called her ill-fated early election on the pretext that she didn’t have the votes to “deliver Brexit” having never been defeated on a Brexit vote in the House of Commons, and as a result she ended up with a Parliament where she really is struggling to pull the votes together, but we are where we are.)

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But the crucial consequence of that is for us to go from where we are to an early election, at some point, a Conservative Prime Minister – perhaps not Theresa May herself, but a Conservative Prime Minister – is going to have to stand in front of some television cameras and say to voters that yes, we did ask you to help us out a little over a year ago, but actually we’re still stick and we need you to vote again. Then they would need a manifesto, which would contain somewhere within it a Brexit policy. What Brexit policy could they possibly run on? If there was a Brexit policy capable of unifying the Conservative Party and not turning an election campaign into a wall-to-wall disaster that would end in a Tory defeat, they wouldn’t need an early election.

It’s hard to see how the Tory party calls an early election and continues a serious governing project afterwards, which is why Conservative MPs are so opposed to the idea, and why I don’t think, no matter how fraught the parliamentary arithmetic, we are heading for an early election.