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Could Boris Johnson call a snap election?

At PMQs today, Keir Starmer called for a general election. Now, with his government collapsing, Boris Johnson seems to be considering it.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Following the resignation of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid from cabinet, along with a number of other frontbenchers, Keir Starmer called for a snap election.

“The Tory party is corrupted, and changing one man at the top won’t fix it,” declared the Labour leader. “We need a real change of government and a fresh start for Britain.”

[See also: Who would win if an election was held today?]

This came a week after Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, challenged the government to call an early election when she stood in for Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions. “I’d revel in the opportunity for the people of this country to have more than just by-elections to see what they think of this government,” she told her opposite number, Dominic Raab. “Call a general election and see where the people are.”

When government is in crisis, or the prime minister is losing support in his own party, the opposition is bound to suggest there’s a need for a fresh mandate. Plus, the national polls are in Labour’s favour at the moment. But it is up to the Prime Minister to call an election. So will he?

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When is the next UK general election?

The UK’s next general election is scheduled for Thursday 2 May 2024.

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There had been rumours for a while that Boris Johnson could call an earlier election, and that Conservative Party HQ was war-gaming one in the event that Starmer has to stand down if fined by Durham police for breaking lockdown rules.

These briefings were generally thought in Westminster to have been a scare tactic used by No 10 against jittery Tory MPs, and Johnson himself ruled out the idea of a snap election a few days ago.

However, during a gruelling session in front of the Liaison Committee after PMQs today, Johnson took a different tone. He hinted to the Liaison Committee that there could be an early election unless the government is allowed to get on with the job, but then appeared to backtrack, saying he was against “wildcat elections”. Later in the session, he said the “last thing this country needs is an election” and “I see no reason whatever for a general election now”. But despite being pressed by committee chairs, he refused to rule one out, creating speculation that he might try to call a vote in a desperate attempt to stay in power by winning a fresh mandate from voters.

Could there be a snap election?

At any time, the prime minister can ask the Queen to dissolve parliament to hold an election. The Queen could, however, refuse through a constitutional convention that allows the monarch to block a snap election in certain circumstances.

Under the so-called Lascelles Principles (which Johnson was quizzed about by the Liaison Committee today), a monarch can deny a request to dissolve parliament before an election if the existing parliament is still “vital, viable, and capable of doing its job” and she can find another prime minister who could “govern for a reasonable period with a working majority in the House of Commons”. (The third principle, that a general election would be “detrimental to the national economy”, reportedly no longer features in the Cabinet Office’s internal guidance.)

In reality, as my colleague Harry Lambert pointed out on the New Statesman podcast, it is unlikely that Johnson would reach this point. The 1922 Committee of back-bench Tory MPs would find a way to immediately meet and expedite a second vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister before he had a chance to go the Palace, he argues.

Who would win a general election today?

As my colleague Ben Walker writes at our polling and data site, State of the Nation, “if an election was held now it would be reasonable to assume, once tactical voting is accounted for, that Labour would win a slim majority”.

The New Statesman’s Britain Predicts model, which doesn’t account for tactical voting, has Labour on 306 seats, with the Tories suffering big losses in marginal constituencies and suburban, commuter-belt seats in the south and east of England.

Starmer also leads public opinion as the preferred prime minister (something Ed Miliband never managed) and for likeability, while Labour now leads on which party is best to manage the economy too: all key metrics for winning general elections.

[ See also: Boris Johnson to resign – what happens now? ]