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  1. Politics
1 April 2019updated 25 Jun 2021 7:28am

An election could well happen. But how?

By Stephen Bush

The Labour leadership will instruct its MPs to back the cross-party “Common Market 2.0” proposals, which would keep the United Kingdom in both the single market and customs union after Brexit. The plans have a credible chance of passing the House of Commons, but they do not command a majority among the governing party.

If, with Labour backing, neither the customs union proposals nor the Common Market 2.0 plan can pass the House of Commons, then it will underline that there is no outcome to the Brexit deadlock that can pass parliament as it is currently composed, putting us on a certain path to another election.

But if they can pass, it will mean that parliament will have endorsed a way forward on Brexit that can’t command the support of the governing party, which may well precipitate another election anyway. But how might that election come about?

Steve Baker, the de facto leader of the Conservative Party’s ultra-Brexiteer wing, has said that he is prepared to consider voting against the government in a motion of no confidence should Theresa May move towards parliament’s soft Brexit majority and support membership of the customs union.

It highlights one possible route towards an early election, which is that the government loses a confidence vote thanks to the defections of committed Brexiteers if May softens her Brexit position.

But the problem with precipitating an election this way is that, even though there is a significant group within the Tory party that agrees with Baker, it’s probably not large enough when push comes to shove.

Don’t forget that since the last motion of no confidence, which the government won with 325 votes to 306, eight MPs have quit the Labour party to found their own new grouping, the Independent Group. They know full well that, at present, an early election means many, perhaps all, of them will lose their seats. So that takes the number voting to dissolve the government down to 298. Of course, we also need to deduct the three Conservatives to have joined TIG, who have said they’d abstain in a no confience vote, from the government pile – to 323.

Direct defections count double, so if Baker were to move from supporting the government to backing a no confidence vote then the margin would be 322 votes in favour to 297, a majority of 25. Baker would have to take 13 Conservative MPs with him in order to force an election that way, which also assumes that the Liberal Democrats – whose relations with TIG are improving – won’t opt to abstain this time, citing “the need to resolve Brexit” or some such.

Added to that, last time, John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis, both reelected as Labour MPs in 2017 but who have since quit the party, both abstained last time. In the event that a no confidence motion looks to have a credible chance of passing, then both might well vote for the government next time.

So it’s difficult to make the numbers work for an early election by that route. However, there is another way: parliament can bring about an early election vote by voting with a two-thirds majority to dissolve itself.

Many Conservative MPs are convinced they could prevent an election by this route too, by refusing to vote for an early election. Whenever I disregard what MPs tell me and come up with my own theory about how they’ll behave I end up looking like an idiot, but on the grounds that you should never break the habit of a lifetime I’m going to do it again: I just don’t believe, when push comes to shove, that enough Tory MPs will actually vote to disregard a request from their own Prime Minister to back an early election. Remember that the votes of Labour and the SNP – who for different reasons have a strong reason to vote for a fresh election – get you within 152 votes of that two thirds. Is more than half of the Conservative Party really going to prevent May going to the country early? I don’t buy it.

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