Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens call for a snap election – could it happen?

As Theresa May heads to Downing Street uncontested, the opposition parties want an early general election.

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Theresa May will become Prime Minister without a contest, as her last remaining rival Andrea Leadsom drops out of the Tory leadership election.

But as the Home Secretary prepares to head to No 10, Labour and other opposition parties are calling for an early general election, suggesting that the Conservatives’ “coronation” of May is undemocratic because she has no popular mandate.

Jon Trickett MP, Labour’s election co-ordinator, said:

“It now looks likely that we are about to have the coronation of a new Conservative Prime Minister. It is crucial, given the instability caused by the Brexit vote, that the country has a democratically-elected Prime Minister. I am now putting the whole of the party on a general election footing. It is time for the Labour party to unite and ensure the millions of people in the country left behind by the Tories’ failed economic policies have the opportunity to elect a Labour government.”

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, added:

“It is simply inconceivable that Theresa May should be crowned Prime Minister without even having won an election in her own party, let alone the country. There must be an election. The Conservatives must not be allowed to ignore the electorate; their mandate is shattered and lies in ruins . . . May has not set out an agenda, and has no right to govern.  She has not won an election and the public must have their say.”

And the Green MP Caroline Lucas joined in the calls for a snap election:

“It is unacceptable that the next person to hold the top job in British politics is appointed by 60% of Tory MPs. They have no mandate to renegotiate Britain's place in the world in this post referendum period. A general election is the only democratic way forward.”

We have yet to hear from May about her intentions regarding an election, but it’s clear her party is urging its leadership to get going on the Brexit negotiations as soon as possible – without distraction. Graham Brady, who leads the 1922 Committee representing Tory backbenchers, was adamant in his endorsement of May as Tory leader that there should be no further contest, as was her erstwhile rival Andrea Leadsom, who warned that, “a nine-week leadership campaign at such a critical moment for our country is highly undesirable”.

There is also a fear that an early election before the end of the year could spook business and investors even further, on top of the damage done by Brexit.

However, an early election would not disadvantage May in terms of domestic politics. With Labour in disarray, and an electorate that so recently returned a Tory majority and voted to leave the EU, a general election would go the Tories’ way. A glance at the current opinion polls also suggests this:

It’s worth remembering, however, that voters (and activists) do succumb to election fatigue after a while – Scotland’s relatively low turnout in the EU referendum demonstrated an element of this. So they might not deliver as stonking a win for May as predicted. And as May’s prime focus as the new PM will be Brexit, it wouldn’t be in the national (or international) interest if she’s instead tied up in electioneering, the civil service is plunged back into purdah, and the markets just about give up on trying to figure the UK out.

But if May did decide to call a snap election, would she even be able to? The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act rules that the next general election should be in 2020, five years since the last one.

MPs can override this Act with a two-thirds majority of the Commons voting to dissolve Parliament and call an early election. Usually this wouldn’t happen, because it either wouldn’t be in the government’s interest to put its majority in peril, or in the opposition’s interest to allow a struggling minority/whiteknuckle majority government to have another shot at gaining more seats by going back to the polls. But in this instance, if Labour, the other opposition parties and the Tories want an early election, then it would be possible to get 67 per cent of the House to vote to dissolve Parliament.

Parliament could also repeal the Act, which would require a simple majority.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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