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22 October 2019

When will the next election be? And will it be this year?

The odds are drifting.

By Jonn Elledge

There was much consternation, some weeks back, regarding rumours that No 10 was planning for an election on 14 October. Said consternation related not to the idea of an autumn election – which was until 1974 quite common – or to the idea that we might be holding an election at all (because, duh). Instead, it was simply because 14 October this year was a Monday.

I say “was” because, as you’ve almost certainly noticed, that date has passed us by, like so much foreign direct investment in the event of a no-deal Brexit. And while holding elections on days other than Thursday has not historically been that unusual either – that convention dates only to 1935 – somehow managing to rewrite time so as to hold an election several weeks in the past definitely is. (Also, if we’re going to try changing history, Terminator-style, then personally I’d begin by talking David Cameron out of that sodding referendum. But that’s just me.)

Anyway: no October election for us. Which raises the question – when will the next election actually be?

Legal limits first. The law requires parliament to dissolve at least 25 working days – five weeks – before polling day. Five weeks from today is Tuesday 26 November…

…but given this week’s Brexit shenanigans, the absolute earliest we might see an election called is Thursday 24 October, which puts the earliest truly plausible date for an election at Thursday 28 November. That gives us nearly five weeks in which we could plausibly still hold a 2019 election.

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Except that it doesn’t, really. Nobody on any side will want an election that clashes with Christmas, as that seems likely to immensely annoy both the voters and the activists whom parties rely on to campaign. That probably rules out anything in the last two weeks of the year.

And the practical difficulties posed by Christmas actually start even earlier. Mark Sedwill, the head of the Civil Service, has reportedly warned the government that a December election will be extremely difficult for local authorities to arrange. That’s because all the usual venues that double as polling stations – community halls, schools and so forth – will be booked up with commercial events, fetes, and god knows what else.

In urban areas, where other venues are available, that’s probably fine. In rural ones it probably isn’t. And even if the government had the power to scrap the village nativity play so that we could have an election instead, it’s not altogether clear that this is a good idea.

So, in practice, there is an extremely narrow window for a 2019 election, extending from 28 November to, at latest, about 12 December. It could happen, if events move quickly, and who’d want to bet against that at this point in history – but the more likely outcome is the election, inevitable as it seems, gets kicked into next year.

That, at least, is what bookmakers Ladbrokes suggests. At time of writing, it offers the following odds on the date of the next election: 20/1 for November (so, possible but unlikely), 15/8 for December (very plausible, but probably not) or 4/9 for 2020 or beyond (very probable).

In other words, although you wouldn’t bet against it, the odds of a 2019 election are receding. Until we get that time machine working, anyway.