Theresa May has announced that she wants an early General Election on 8 June. However, this is no longer a simple matter of the PM going to see the Queen and requesting that Parliament be dissolved and an election called. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act Mrs May will require a two thirds majority in the House of Commons to vote to call an early election.
The odds are on May getting a two thirds majority because the leaders of the Labour and LibDem parties, Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron have both welcomed the idea of an early election . However, the position is not quite as straightforward as it might seem. The two thirds majority in the Commons is not two thirds of those who vote, but two thirds of the entire Commons personnel, that is, 434 of the 650 MPs. If there is a heavy abstention – the coward’s way out for an MP – May could struggle to reach 434 voting in favour.
Suppose that 100 MPs abstain. That would mean May would have to gain 434 votes out of 550, a majority of those voting of 79%. Only 116 votes against an early general election would be needed. If the SNP with 56 MPs voted en bloc against the attempt to call an early General Election it would require only 60 other MPs to vote against the same way. Are the SNP likely to vote en bloc? Well, there has been no definitive statement from the SNP leadership but their leader Nicola Sturgeon appears to be taking the proposed General Election as a fact rather than a possibility, viz ‘[Nicola Sturgeon] said the election would “once again give people the opportunity to reject the Tories’ narrow, divisive agenda, as well as reinforcing the democratic mandate which already exists for giving the people of Scotland a choice on their future.”’
All that seemingly makes a vote against an early election unlikely. However, that is what the party leaders are saying. There is an outside chance that a hardcore of remainer MPs might spoil the party and defeat the motion for an early election. As the figures above show relatively few MPs would have to rebel either by voting against or simply abstaining. There are strong reasons for them to do so. Apart from wanting to sabotage the Brexit vote for ideological reasons many remain MPs also a venal interest in not having an election now because they fear that they might lose their seats.
If May loses the vote
If May is unable to get a vote for an early election she will be in something of a pickle for her authority will be diminished and she will then have to endure over three years of the dismal picture she painted in her speech announcing her intent to seek a dissolution of Parliament, viz:
“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not. In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union.
The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill.
The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union.
And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way. “
What would be May’s options if she cannot get the Commons to vote itself into a General Election? She could attempt to repeal the fixed term Parliaments Act which could be done by a simple majority , but she would have to get that through the Lords which would probably prove impossible. In theory she could engineer a vote of no confidence in her own government to bring about an election, but that would be both absurd and uncertain of success. The reality is that if May cannot get the motion passed permitting an election on 8 June that will be the end of any immediate prospect of a General Election.
If a General Election is called for 8 June
If a General Election is called it is important that Brexiteers, especially those who are supporters of the Tory Party, do not relax. The polls show the Tory Party hugely in front of Labour with an average of five polls in April having the Tories at 43% and Labour at 25%. That looks very solid, but importantly the proposed election will be held before boundary changes to constituencies are made. These are thought to be worth at least a a couple of dozen seats to the Tories and cost Labour a similar number, so the increase in the Tory majority may not as large as anticipated. It is also true that most Labour seats have sizeable majorities so that gaining large numbers of seats from them is a big ask.
A June General Election now would not be a normal one. Like the Peers v the People Election of 1910 it will be predominantly about a single issue, namely, Brexit. Indeed, it could reasonably be portrayed as a proxy for re-running the EU Referendum.
There is a considerable psychological difference between voting in a referendum with a clear cut yes or no decision for the voter to make and a General Election, which is about choosing a people to make decisions on a multiplicity of subjects for several years . Many of those who voted to Leave the EU are not natural Tory voters, especially those working-class Labour voters who did much to win the referendum. Those voters may not be anything like as willing to vote for a Tory government as they were to vote for Brexit.
Motivation to vote will also be important. It is arguable that the remainers will tend to be more strongly committed to vote than Brexiteers simply because they were the referendum losers and consequently will be without any feeling of complacency. They will see this as an occasion to vent their anger and frustration. Brexiteers may be more inclined to think that the Brexit job is, if not done, at least on a track from which it cannot be derailed and be less inclined to vote, especially if they are the people who are not natural Conservatives.
Remainer voters will also be energised by the fact that May has said repeatedly that she would not attempt to call an early General Election. Some leave voters may also feel uneasy about this and be persuaded not to vote on 8 June.
Finally, there is sheer voter fatigue. British voters have had a General Election in 2015, the EU referendum in 2016 and face local elections . Scottish voters had the independence referendum in 2014 and Northern Ireland had devolved elections in March 2017. Voter apathy for general elections, and for the Tories and Labour, has been on the rise since the 1950s. It is probable that the turnout of a June General Election will be significantly below the turnout for the EU referendum which saw a turnout of 72%. If the turnout was significantly below this the remainers will use it to cast aspersions on May’s claim that she had a mandate from the British people.
All of this adds up to a need for all those who want to see Brexit completed to be both committed to the coming election and to think forward beyond it. If, as seems most likely, Theresa May comes back from the election with a substantial majority that does not mean Brexiteers can relax. A large majority might allow May to push Brexit through but it will also allow her to be dishonest. It should never be forgotten that she is a remainer and most of her cabinet and Parliamentary Party are remainers. They would in their heart of hearts like to have something far less than Brexit. Already there have been disturbing signs of May’s intentions to sabotage the vote to leave. For example, in the prime areas for Brexit of immigration and the Single Market, Home Secretary Amber Rudd says immigration may not drop significantly after Brexit, while the supposedly rock solid Brexiteer David Davis suggested in December that the UK might pay a fee to the EU to retain access to the Single Market.
The watchword for Brexiteers must be as ever eternal vigilance. Start counting the spoons.