Boris Johnson has once again fallen short of the two-thirds threshold to bring about an early election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and will instead opt for the alternative route that Theresa May’s aides considered in 2017 – a one-line bill putting aside the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and setting the date of the next election for 12 December 2019.
He has also said that he will not attempt to bring back the Withdrawal Agreement Bill within this Parliament in a bid to secure Liberal Democrat and SNP support for the measure. But Jo Swinson has signalled that her party will oppose an election on 12 December. What’s so important about three days?
The reason why the 9 December date is important to the SNP and Liberal Democrats is they fear that Johnson will use the dying days of the 2017 parliament to ram through the deal with the support of nervous Labour backbenchers, denying them their last opportunity to stop Brexit. Taking away those days means taking away that opportunity.
Downing Street will hope that pledging not to bring the withdrawal agreement bill back means that they can overcome that hurdle, but the problem Johnson has is that the opposition parties do not trust him, because he has attempted to prorogue Parliament, put a regulatory border in the Irish Sea having said he would not, and gone back on his promise to prevent a third runway being built at Heathrow. As far as both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats see it, promises from Boris Johnson tend not to be worth very much.
Under the Electoral Registration and Administration Act an election requires a minimum of 25 working days between dissolution and the election date itself. That means that to hit the 9 December date Parliament would have to dissolve on 1 November, leaving several bits of legislation – most importantly from a continuity of government perspective the legislation covering the continued failure to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland – at risk of not passing.
To hit the 12 December date, however, Parliament would sit until Wednesday 6 November – creating a considerably longer period of time for MPs to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, particularly if MPs voted to sit on weekends.
So the difference is not one of political advantage or simply of a few days, but one with the potential to completely change the political context.