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25 October 2019

Will the UK have a general election in 2019? Ask Emmanuel Macron

It’s not in the interests of any opposition party to facilitate an election on Boris Johnson’s terms, but not doing so could yet backfire. 

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson will seek dissolution on Monday, though his preferred route is unclear. Either way, he can’t do it alone. He needs either the support of the Labour Party to clear the two-thirds threshold he needs under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, or the support of another opposition party to pass a one-line bill putting the Act aside and setting the election date for 12 December.

It’s in the SNP’s political interests to present themselves a more robust opponent of the Tories than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats but it’s politically fraught to facilitate an election on Boris Johnson’s terms, particularly if that election leads to a no-deal Brexit by accident.

As far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, it’s obviously in their short-term interests for there to be an election while Brexit is up for grabs and they can leverage their status as the United Kingdom’s biggest and loudest pro-Remain party to get more votes and seats, and in their long-term interests to bring this parliament to a close, given the perilous possibility that there might now be a majority to ratify Johnson’s deal. But Jo Swinson has no intention of triggering a course of events that could accidentally lead to a no-deal Brexit.

On the Labour side, Jeremy Corbyn took a great deal of convincing not to go for an election in September and that the weeks since have seen the Liberal Democrats have a wildly successful party conference and the Conservative government dominate the airwaves and media narrative is unlikely to have changed his mind. Yes, there is widespread discontent and worry about the outcome in the Parliamentary Labour Party about an election, but that was true in 2017, and in the end, just 20 Labour MPs rebelled against the party whip.

What changed Corbyn’s mind then was that to call an election was to risk a no-deal Brexit by mistake. And the argument that procedure-minded Labour MPs are making to Corbyn is that an election on 12 December – the date that Johnson is saying he will seek – means in practice that parliament will not return until the New Year. It then has the formal state opening and the election of a new speaker before parliament can vote on anything else. If the EU offers an extension ending on 31 January, even a decisive result could lead to no deal by accident on that timetable.

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If the Labour leader is again persuaded to back off from an election, it will be that he is once again convinced that the timetable for an extension and for an election risk a no deal by accident.

So to meet Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ desires, the EU will need to provide an extension past 31 January or Johnson will have to facilitate some form of legislative protection against a no-deal exit on 31 January. That means that having an election will come down to what Macron, the most vocal EU leader against a long extension, decides to do next.

There’s a problem for Boris Johnson here. On the one hand, CCHQ wants to argue that his deal passed parliament thanks to its comfortable win at second reading. On the other, Johnson is also arguing that this parliament will never do Brexit and that to make sure Brexit happens he needs to delay it, and potentially delay it into February. It opens up an area of strategic vulnerability that could be exploited by Nigel Farage which, in turn, boosts the electoral hopes of Corbyn and Swinson.