Theresa May’s threats to MPs make no sense at all

The Prime Minister is hinting she might just ignore MPs or call an election – but neither sanction is in her sole control.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough: Theresa May has hinted that in the event that the House of Commons endorses a resolution to the Brexit crisis other than her deal, it won’t necessarily become government policy.

There are two implicit messages here. The first, to the whole House, is that the Prime Minister is willing to ignore the elected House in order to present it with a forced choice between her deal and a no deal exit. Whether that’s what May is aiming for or not – and to the extent that she has a consistent strategy, this is clearly part of it – is essentially irrelevant, as ultimately the British constitution is a one-line document: if you have a parliamentary majority, you can do what you want. If MPs can cohere around an alternative plan they could appoint one of their number to negotiate with the EU, or even send a letter revoking Article 50 from the House of Commons rather than from the executive if they so desire.

The more important message, because it is nominally within the Prime Minister’s gift, is the message to Conservative MPs thinking about voting to trigger indicative votes tonight: that they are risking an election if the result is something the government doesn’t like.

Large numbers of Tory MPs believe that the party would implode over the course of an election campaign, as the party cannot agree on a resolution to the Brexit deadlock, and has no domestic record to run on. As one MP complained to me recently, that the most effective ministers from a policy perspective are David Gauke, the reform-minded Justice Secretary, and Michael Gove, at Environment, means that the case for re-election would make the party “look like the fucking Lib Dems” as it would major on putting rehabilitation first in prisons and cutting down on plastic waste.

This threat is a lot more plausible. Although a fresh election is within the gift of the House, rather than the Prime Minister, the path to a snap contest is easy to plot out: the Labour party would of course support one as the Opposition cannot pass up any opportunity to replace the government. That, taken together with the votes of Conservative MPs, would be enough to clear the two-thirds majority for a fresh election. But a sizable rebellion by Tory MPs could of course prevent that, which is an option that many Conservatives say they would be willing to take. It is nonetheless, an awfully big step to rebel against your own government in those circumstances.

The bigger problem for May is that there simply isn’t time to call a fresh election. Under the 2013 Electoral Registration and Administration Act, the minimum amount of time that must be allocated for an election is 25 working days. Even if the election were called and Parliament dissolved today, that would mean having to seek a prolonged extension and having to participate in elections to the European Parliament, which May wants to avoid; or having a no-deal exit midway through a general election campaign.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.