While there has been much talk about a possible vote of no confidence when parliament returns in the autumn, speculation about the possibility of the Prime Minister himself seeking to trigger an immediate election in September has been much more limited. In this post, Robert Hazell and Meg Russell suggest that an October election could hold some attractions for Johnson, but it would also hold significant risks. Crucially, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act Labour could readily block him from pursuing it.
Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on 24 July there has been a daily blizzard of announcements from No 10 trumpeting more spending on the police, the NHS, schools, and other public services. This has led some commentators to conclude that he is gearing up for an autumn election. The context has largely been speculation, on the one hand, about a possible parliamentary vote of no confidence triggering such an election either shortly before or after Brexit day on 31 October, or on the other hand, over whether Johnson could successfully proceed with a ‘no deal’ Brexit, pulling the rug from under the Brexit Party, and hold an election in November.
Much energy has gone into debating how parliament might prevent ‘no deal’, considering possible legislation, votes of no confidence, governments of national unity, the caretaker convention, and the the Prime Minister’s ability to advise the Queen when polling day will be. On this blog, we have contributed our share (see here). But amidst the speculation about a vote of no confidence under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, there has been far less focus on the possible use of the other route to an early election provided in the Act, which is to invite the Commons to agree to an early dissolution. One exception was a piece in last week’s Spectator, suggesting that when parliament returns on 3 September Boris Johnson could immediately trigger such a vote, potentially leading to a general election on 10 October. Theresa May, after all, surprised everyone by triggering an early election in 2017. Could Boris Johnson do the same?
This post considers the reasons why the Prime Minister might be tempted to pursue such a route, and the very significant obstacles that he would face.
Why Boris Johnson might favour a snap election
The potential scenario is this: Boris Johnson returns on 3 September announcing that he wants to call an early election, to seek a mandate to bolster his tough negotiating position that the EU must drop the Irish backstop – or that failing that, the UK would pursue a ‘no deal’ Brexit. He might claim that this was necessary to appeal over the heads of intransigent MPs to the public at large.
Johnson might prefer an early election by this route to facing a possible impending vote of no confidence. Though the latter might give him an election from which he could seek to profit, it would also bring big risks. The biggest is the risk that MPs could use the statutory 14-day period that follows such a vote (provided by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act) to install an alternative ‘unity’ government and seek a Brexit delay. By calling an early election himself, Johnson would avoid this risk, and maintain control of both the narrative and the timing. Instead of risking an election being forced upon him after being defeated on a no confidence motion, he could stay on the front foot, with an election held on his terms.
Johnson might hope that an early election would blindside the opposition parties, and take them by surprise. Labour might be particularly poorly prepared, with reports of disruptive internal disputes as Labour MPs have to submit themselves for reselection. There would be little time for opposition parties to construct a ‘Unite to Remain’ alliance.
An early election would of course also close down parliament, which looks set to provide a challenging environment for Johnson in the run-up to 31 October. Hence MPs would have little opportunity to scrutinise Johnson’s Brexit plans, and minimal opportunity to legislate to prevent ‘no deal’, facilitate the revocation of Article 50, or any of the other stratagems being mooted. Instead, parliament would be dissolved in the weeks preceding an election, which Johnson could attempt to argue was legitimate in order to facilitate a public vote. This might appear an attractive alternative to proroguing parliament simply to avoid scrutiny over his Brexit plans, the suggestion of which attracted strong criticism, and resistance from MPs.
The action taken by MPs before the summer to avoid a prorogation would not in itself prevent Johnson pursuing an election, as dissolution for a general election is a different thing to prorogation. The rebel amendments inserted in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act added a requirement for regular reports to parliament, in effect ruling out a lengthy prorogation between the dates of 9 October and 18 December. But if parliament were not sitting on 9 October due to dissolution for an election, this would not contradict the legislation.
An early election could also have the side effect of scuppering the party conferences. These are rare occasions in the political calendar when the opposition parties can get to dominate the news – which could be important if an election is thought to be coming. That effect would be torpedoed if the election was already under way, as the conferences would almost inevitably be scrapped or postponed. This could be costly to the parties (including the Conservatives), in financial as well as political terms. However, it is the governing party which is probably best placed to absorb such costs.
Why a snap election might prove difficult to achieve
Hence for various reasons a snap election might look tempting to Prime Minister Johnson, in order to dodge some of his current difficulties, seize the political agenda and wrongfoot his opponents. However, in practice, it could prove difficult to achieve.
The key factor is that prime ministers can no longer set the election timetable unilaterally. Section 2(1)(b) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act requires two thirds of all MPs to vote in favour of an early general election. This is a much more stringent requirement than the simple majority needed for approval of a vote of no confidence under section 2(3). The hurdle of a two-thirds majority did not present difficulties for Theresa May in April 2017. Her motion for an early election was supported by 522 MPs, including the official opposition, with just 13 voting against.
Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly called for an early election, so Boris Johnson might feel that he could trap the opposition leader into supporting his plan. But the political environment now is very different to that in 2017, with the Brexit deadline of 31 October looming. Many concerns have been raised about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of Johnson’s Brexit strategy facilitated by the summer parliamentary recess – with more than 100 MPs (including Corbyn himself) demanding an early recall. If the opposition leader threw in his lot with the Prime Minister by supporting an early election, he could be accused of preventing the very parliamentary scrutiny for which he has been calling. Crucially, Labour does not actually need to vote against a motion for an early election; its MPs can deny the government a two thirds majority simply by abstaining.
In addition, the Brexit deadline means that Labour support for an early general election would leave the party very vulnerable to claims that it was facilitating a no deal Brexit – which would play into the hands of other, anti-Brexit, parties. After election day, very little time would remain before the 31 October deadline. Some of that might be eaten up by negotiations over creation of a new government, should the election result again in a hung parliament. Of course, if Johnson won the election he might anyway seek to proceed with ‘no deal’. Spending five weeks on an election campaign with the Brexit clock ticking would leave both parties vulnerable to claims of self-indulgently wasting time, so could prove unpopular and electorally damaging. For all of these reasons, Corbyn would presumably demand that Johnson negotiate an extension to the Article 50 period before offering his support for a parliamentary dissolution, if he was minded to back it at all. But for Johnson that would be toxic in a pre-election environment, as it would break his central pledge when running to be Conservative leader – frequently repeated since – that he is determined to leave the EU on 31 October ‘do or die’. It could hence play straight into the hands of the Brexit Party.
Finally, Corbyn clearly has another route through which he can force a general election – that of the vote of no confidence. This would give him a big symbolic victory, and an opportunity to politically humiliate Boris Johnson. It would also give him the chance to be kingmaker (or potentially even Prime Minister) in a ‘unity’ government which would seek a Brexit extension – as he has expressed his desire to do. It is difficult to see what incentive there could be for Corbyn to instead hand the initiative to Johnson. If Corbyn wants a general election, he can force one on his own terms.
Ultimately, an early election could actually be to Johnson’s disadvantage. As well as risking the impression that he was deliberately dodging scrutiny, and being self-indulgent, a premature election might not allow him convincingly to run the the ‘parliament versus people’ narrative that many think he wants to pursue. If MPs were denied the opportunity to vote down his ‘no deal’ strategy, he would have difficulty arguing that parliament was the problem. Instead, he himself could be accused of ‘running down the clock’ rather than focusing either on negotiating a deal, or on putting in place the robust preparations for ‘no deal’ that his government has promised. Oddly, an election triggered at a time of Labour’s choosing, with the Prime Minister’s Brexit strategy thwarted, could suit Johnson better than any election he calls himself.
In conclusion, it would be surprising if the Prime Minister and his advisers had not given serious thought to the possibility of seeking an early dissolution to facilitate an October election. Hence Labour should be – and likely already is – thinking through how to react. But, much as both leaders may instinctively want an election, and be seeking to make themselves election-ready, the likelihood of this scenario seems low. While Theresa May’s snap election seemed to indicate parliament’s weakness in resisting an election despite the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the events of this coming autumn might offer an opportunity instead to show its strengths.
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About the authors
Professor Robert Hazell was the first Director of the Constitution Unit, and closely involved with helping the Cabinet Office draft the Cabinet Manual. He is currently working on a comparative study of European monarchies, due to be published next year.
Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and also a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’.