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9 October 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 12:06pm

The Debate: Will there be an early election?

The New Statesman politics desk chew it over.

By New Statesman

Welcome to the Debate, where the New Statesman’s political team tackles your questions.

Stephen Bush (special correspondent): Hi everyone, and welcome to the NS Debate: an on and off series in which we discuss something that’s animating politics or at the least the NS political desk.

And the question is: are we going to have an early election?

The divide is – and I have a problem, that I find both equally convincing –

1) There is no way that the 2017 parliament is going to be able to negotiate Brexit, let alone pass any major legislation or controversial finance bills, as it is simply too finely balanced to govern. So there will at some point have to be an election before March 2019

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OR

2) Calling an election is basically the end of the Conservative Party as a governing project. They would, for the third year in succession have run to the voters looking for them to solve an internal scrap, there is no Brexit policy they could possibly unite around in their manifesto – so they will desperately avoid an election at all costs

The thing is I think both are true, which is obviously impossible.

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So, guys. Help a brutha out.

Anoosh Chakelian (senior writer): So because of Theresa May’s announcement that austerity is ending, we’re assuming she’s going to have to pass a controversial finance bill at some point soon? Because they’ve managed to pass stuff so far when they’ve stuck to austerity in all but name.

Stephen: So I think if Philip Hammond got up, gave a speech about how tough they were and announced a Budget containing extra borrowing to finance more cash for the NHS, for schools, etc, then it would pass, as most Conservative MPs are austerity Nimbys anyhow.

But I think the important part of May’s promise is not “austerity will end” but “and debt will continue to fall”. And if public spending is going to go up, but debt as a share of GDP is going to fall, all that’s left is tax rises. Which, um, good luck with that.

Anoosh: Say that is going to happen, does the legislation necessarily have to fail? Could they convince the party to vote it through? Surely Conservative MPs are more scared of handing the country over to Jeremy Corbyn than looking mildly less evil to their constituents and local politicians in their constituencies (lots of Tory town/borough/county councillors these days are baying for tax rises and/or more central government funding).

Patrick Maguire (political correspondent): It is hard to see just who on the Tory benches would vote a finance bill down when push came to shove.

Anoosh: Yes, agree. Can’t May just break the debt promise? George Osborne broke all his promises and no one cared. He had more political capital but then there wasn’t the constant fear that Labour could win an election back then – and there was no Brexit excuse. So is May potentially in a stronger position to bend their own finance rules?

Patrick: But equally, where is Spreadsheet Phil’s fiscal headroom? What tax rises can you convince Tory backbenchers to vote for – or rather, convince a dozen not to at least threaten to vote down? What is left to profitably cut at this point?

Stephen: So I’m in two (four?) minds. As Anoosh says, Osborne broke promise after promise and nobody gave a flying one. But ultimately he went through the motions of trying to balance the books and going through the motions in this case means a tax rise.

Anoosh: Could they not fudge it – like introducing an insurance scheme for social care or something? I am so convinced they can get people to pay more without it looking like a straight-up tax rise that would spook Tory backbenchers

Stephen: I just think Hammond is too much of a Treasury creature to do a hypothetical tax or something like that.

Like the Nick Boles hypothecated tax idea just makes every Treasury civil servant look at you like you might be planning to steal their cutlery or whatever, and Hammond is the ultimate civil servant’s minister.

But equally the 2017 Budget might be instructive: Hammond brought forward a series of recommendations that had been knocking around the Treasury since William Gladstone was in short trousers, had to U–Turn on the tax rise, the spending passed just fine.

Anoosh: I always hear how much they hate the idea of hypothecated taxes at the Treasury – but why? Is it because previous taxes meant for specific purposes have just become generalised? Like National Insurance? I never get that argument – surely you get the short-term political boost (which I know civil servants care less about, but is still good for Phil) and some extra money coming in (particularly for this government?)

It’s popular with the public, and no longer your problem by the time it stops working…

Stephen: I think it’s also that taxes don’t always rise by as much as you think, and then BOOM you need to get money from elsewhere when your shiny NHS tax isn’t enough.

But the “ending austerity” promise – even assuming she actually follows through which is a pretty big assumption – is going to cause problems with finance bills one way or another, isn’t it?

Patrick: Every line of argument we discuss, however logically consistent, is short-circuited by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. The letter of that law says that the Budget is no longer a confidence issue. In the unlikely scenario that the ERG or a couple of dozen white van Tories or indeed anyone with a marginal seat votes it down, it doesn’t mean an election or the government falling, which surely massively minimises the risk for rebels who want to flex their muscles. Of course, the whips could then say: “That’s it! I warned you! Election time!” (As they were prepared to if MPs voted a customs union onto the face of the EU Withdrawal Act.)

But then the FPTA hobbles the government again as the same rebels could then simply refuse to vote for an election. But how this would work in practice is the $64,000 question: could a government really survive having its own Budget voted down? The spirit of our democracy says no, but the letter of our constitution – one of the few occasions where there is one – says yes. We are in uncharted constitutional waters…

(That’s not to say that I think the ERG is going to blow the whole thing up. They’re not. But what if they did?)

Stephen: I think in practice, if Downing Street wants an election it gets one. Yes there will be some Tory MPs who go “no way, jog on”, but the opposition parties always have to say “okay, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough”.

Anoosh: I think the spirit is the important thing – surprisingly few people in Westminster have the letter of the FTPA at the front of their minds (probably because it’s relatively new still and just isn’t part of the muscle memory of British politics yet), so the temptation to rebel because a Budget falling is no longer a no-confidence issue I think won’t really be there. People just aren’t used to it yet!

Patrick: Yeah, the argument that “huge defeat on x significant policy need not mean an election” is one you often hear from Tory Brexiteers vis a vis the vote on the deal. But of course they tend to make those arguments right up until the point they vote with the government.

Anoosh: Yes exactly, Patrick. They believe it in their heads but not in their parliamentary hearts.

Patrick: Eurosceptic strategists definitely do. But it remains to be seen what happens at the eleventh hour.

Which leads me to my question: Stephen, who are “Tory MPs”? Do they exist as a coherent bloc anymore? I am inclined to say that they are approaching the point that they don’t. You can of course say that about any party but Brexit is close to blowing the whole thing up.

Stephen: So, good question re: Tory MPs. I was really struck at this year’s conference by how much I would hear people talking about how the other half of the party was rolling, and I’d just be thinking “No, that’s really not how they see it”. Now obviously Labour is full of seething hatred, but the hatred is at least broadly accurate about how the other half lives.

Patrick: Save for a bit of slippage to the ministerial and PPS payroll there is almost no overlap between the government and ERG anymore. Whether the ERG is truly a whippable force of great enough magnitude to force an FPTA test case is another question entirely. It certainly isn’t an 80-strong gang of Bill Cashes who are all agreed on what exactly they want. But are its priorities different enough to those of the pragmatic middle and the naughty corner crowd that enough of them could do? I am inclined to say yes.

What’s more, an argument favoured by some Chequers refuseniks is that it would scupper them in their marginals. Is Ben Bradley really going to vote for an election if asked? I mean, really?

Stephen: But is Ben Bradley going to stand up and go “It’s my view that if we have an election, the voters of Mansfield would tell me where to go. So let’s not ask them”?

I just can’t work out what the excuse you can give for voting against an election if asked.

Patrick: Depends if it’s pre- or post-March 2019. I think “of course we can’t have an election now, that’s completely insane, why can’t we negotiate Canada like Donald Tusk says?” is the excuse for pre. (Albeit an incredibly leaky one.)

Anoosh: If the government decides it wants an election then it gets one, surely? Opposition parties can never refuse an opportunity to govern. So even if your Ben Bradleys are against it, it won’t make a difference?

Patrick: Depends how many Conservative MPs choose to vote against it “in the national interest”.

Anoosh: Enough to overcome the two-thirds rule?

Stephen: Someone help me: what’s two-thirds of 650?

Patrick: 433.

Stephen: Opposition parties alone get you to 300 and change.

Patrick: So the number of Tory MPs rebelling would have to be pretty – read unrealistically – high.

Anoosh: If we’re at the stage when this government thinks its best chance is calling an election then either the entire party’s fallen apart – which means maybe you could have an unlikely mass of rebels – or there’s been a big shift in the polls away from Labour so they feel safe enough to call one, in which case surely you have enough of your own on side.

Stephen: And Labour is never, ever, ever, ever, EVER going to decline a chance at any election. So I don’t think realistically Tory MPs can veto an early election.

Patrick: But then if it comes after the Commons voting down a deal in December, January, whenever, then how do you call it without extending Article 50?

Another chance for Tory Brexiteers to (at least pretend they’re going to) blow their tops.

Stephen: Right so let’s get into the revoking Article 50 bit. As Patrick says an early election means abandoning any pretence that we are going to have Brexit done and dusted by March 2019. Will Brexiteers accept that? I can’t see it.

Patrick: My urge has been to self-correct when I talk about Tory Brexiteers voting against their own government, given that we know their form is to err on the side of voting with it. But those occasions all involved some sort of concession. I just don’t see how every single one of them is bought off, even if most of them are. The question re: Article 50 is how many of them care about getting out of the EU on March 29th? The fundamentalist wing will, the Maastricht survivors, etc. But then what about those who fear you ultimately can’t spin not leaving the EU when you said you would, even if Brexit is still coming? Could it be the moment that radicalises fair-weather rebels? It’s a big old known unknown.

It’s also worth saying that no Tory MP I spoke to at conference thought there would be an election next year.

Stephen: So it feels like we’re essentially saying: a) the government will be fine over the Budget, b) the government can get an election if it wants, c) The government is in a hell of a pickle as far as passing Brexit votes.

I’m conscious that we’ve rattled on a bit so I think the final question is: do we think that the government can pass a Brexit deal through the House of Commons as it is currently constituted?

Patrick: In theory, no, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they do. Stewart Jackson, DD’s former chief of staff, Chuck Chequers-strategist and, perhaps most relevantly, former whip, said when we met for a steak at Peterborough’s handsomely appointed branch of Cote recently: “There isn’t a majority for anything. Until there is, of course.” 

We were constantly told there was no way the government would escape having a customs union written onto the face of the Withdrawal Act, and then there was a way.

But then there is also a part of me that feels the nonchalance that some government-adjacent, May-loyalist Tories have – one Parliamentary Private Secretary told me last week that it would all be fine because “nobody is going to vote for 0 per cent of Brexit over 90 per cent of Brexit” – could be misplaced. The Brexiteers feel they have the letter of the FPTA and Commons arithmetic on their side. The government has basically made the same calculation, though swap letter of the FPTA for democratic norms/convention. And we all know what’s happened to them recently, eh Stephen?

Stephen: So that’s a cautious “Yes”. Anoosh?

Anoosh: I don’t think they can pass it. I remember when the very prospect of a second referendum was outrageous on all sides other than Remain zealots and Nigel Farage, but now it’s not such a crazy concept and the received wisdom is it seems like an inevitability if the deal doesn’t pass. This empowers more than the usual suspects to vote against the deal.

Stephen: So it’s 1-1, although Patrick is slightly less committed to it not passing than Anoosh is to it passing. 0.5 to 1.5?

I also think it won’t pass. You only need seven Brexiteers not to vote for it and I don’t think that they are going to get enough Labour rebels to back it to bail them out?

Patrick: Ultimately, I agree. This is an existential issue for enough Tories that they are prepared to do the unthinkable. And to return to my earlier argument, the provisions of FPTA means it’s no longer unthinkable.

Stephen: So essentially it feels like our conclusion is: the Budget will probably be fine. Brexit probably won’t. If the executive wants an election it can get one – but given the probability of a Brexit disaster it probably won’t want one. Sounds about right?

Anoosh: I think so.

Patrick: About right, yes. Though I do think that if there’s ever an issue that will defy convention – and our fundamental assumptions about how parties and their MPs function and behave – then Brexit will be it.

Stephen: Well, that’s all she wrote. We’ll be back soonish. Sooner than the gap between this chat and the last one at any rate.                                 

Patrick: Come back for our next instalment: is the DLR a tube?