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25 September 2019

Third time lucky? Geoffrey Cox hints at another early election vote

Addressing the Commons, the Attorney General repeatedly raised the prospect of legislating for a snap poll.

By Patrick Maguire

“This parliament is a dead parliament. It should no longer sit. It has no moral right to sit on these green benches … They don’t like to hear it, Mr Speaker. They don’t like the truth. Twice they have been asked to let the electorate decide upon whether they should continue to sit in their seats, while they block 17.4 million people’s votes. This parliament is a disgrace!” 

While the first item on the agenda of a hastily reconvened Commons was notionally an urgent question to Geoffrey Cox on yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling, the Attorney General’s answers quickly moved onto the ground upon which his government is most comfortable fighting: parliament’s unwillingness to acquiesce to its Brexit plans.

With characteristic gusto, Cox attacked the opposition parties for refusing to allow Boris Johnson the election he so desires. Preventing it, he said, was “immoral and undemocratic”. Will they listen to him? The mere fact of Cox’s speech reflects the bind the government is in: under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it needs a two-thirds majority if it wants to dissolve parliament for a snap poll. Huff and puff though ministers might, Labour holds the whip hand and has no intention of giving them an election until an Article 50 extension is secured.

So it was telling that Cox chose more than once to raise the only other straightforward avenue available to the government: legislating for an election via a one-line bill, which would only require a simple majority. Intriguingly, he went on to tell MPs that an “election motion” would come before the Commons later today — suggesting he wasn’t just making an academic point.

Of course, a simple majority is something that this government does not reliably have. Legislation, for that matter, can be amended. In legislating for an election, ministers are effectively allowing the opposition and Tory rebels to set the date, change the franchise, cap campaign spending limits and set any other conditions on a poll that they see fit. And even more fundamentally, as long as 31 October remains a hard deadline, a majority of one is more unlikely than not.

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But although it is not the silver bullet the government wants, it is the best that any prime minister will be able to do while the Fixed-term Parliaments Act remains in force.

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