Thursday

21st Nov 2019

Opinion

Brexit snap election might plumb further chaos

  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson with the Downing Street cat, Larry. 'Johnson is relentlessly divisive and scornful of the half of the country that disagrees with him.' (Photo: Number 10)

Tuesday (3 September) 2019 will go down as one of the most dramatic days in British parliamentary history.

A new prime minister met the House of Commons, and witnessed his parliamentary majority of one seat wiped out as Conservative MP Philip Lee crossed the floor to the Liberal Democrats.

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Then in the evening parliament voted to take temporary control of the order of business of the House (the usual pattern is that the government is in charge of the legislative timetable) in order to pass legislation to stop the prospect of crashing out of the EU without agreement on 31 October.

A cabinet consisting largely of serial rebels against Theresa May's government then expelled 21 Conservative MPs from the parliamentary party for voting against the whip.

Among these MPs were Philip Hammond, recently chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), and Nicholas Soames whose grandfather was Winston Churchill. Prime minister Boris Johnson then announced that he would call a general election for 15 October.

The flaw in Johnson's plan is that since 2010, the prime minister has no longer had the unilateral power to call an election before the full five-year parliamentary term is up.

An early election requires a vote of two-thirds of the House of Commons in favour, or else a 14-day period in which nobody is able to form a government which would command the confidence of the House.

In normal circumstances – and even 2017 was relatively normal by current standards – this should not be a problem.

If the prime minister wants it, the government MPs will vote for it and the main opposition party usually has to appear keen to have an election and take over the reins of power.

This is how Theresa May called her snap election in 2017.

However, in the present circumstances the current parliament wishes to avert No Deal Brexit.

There is ample reason not to trust the Johnson regime with timing and conducting an election.

An alternative would therefore be to pass a vote of no confidence in the Johnson government, which would lead in turn either to the formation of an alternative temporary government or an election after a 14-day delay.

Forming an alternative government in the current parliament is very difficult because there is so much that divides the various opponents of the Johnson government.

The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn would be very difficult for Liberal Democrats and rebel Conservatives to accept as prime minister.

They regard him as belonging to the far left and not being competent enough to run a government, and this view is shared by many of Corbyn's parliamentary Labour colleagues.

Conversely, the Labour leadership would be unwilling to install a Conservative or Liberal Democrat whose austerity policies in coalition in 2010-15 are blamed by the left for the miserable state of the economy and public services and therefore the protest vote for Brexit in 2016.

Opposition mess

The opposition forces are also divided on how best to get out of this mess – whether to try to pass a deal agreed with the EU-27, go for a second referendum or even to just revoke Article 50.

The second largest opposition force, the Scottish National Party (SNP), wants to use its leverage to increase the chances of Scottish independence.

While an independent Scotland would be an eager applicant for EU membership, the more tactically-minded SNP politicians can see the advantages to a UK state breakdown in a No-Deal crisis.

The UK electoral system adds to the complexity. It is based on plurality voting in single member constituencies ('First Past the Post'), which can cause large distortions in the ratio between the votes cast and the seats won by a party.

The geographical distribution of the vote, and the extent to which votes divide between rival parties, determine the balance within parliament.

The Johnson strategy is essentially to consolidate as much of the pro-Brexit half of the electorate as possible, and squeeze down the vote for MEP Nigel Farage's Brexit Party.

Meanwhile, Labour's problems and the revival of the Liberal Democrats could split the anti-Brexit half of the country and allow the pro-Brexit Conservatives to win a comfortable parliamentary majority with 35-40 per cent of the vote.

Recent opinion polling has shown this scenario to be possible. When Johnson became prime minister, Conservative support rose, largely at the expense of Farage's Brexit Party.

But it is only in the low 30 percent range in most polls (compared to 43 per cent in the last election), while Labour and the Lib Dems are each in the low to mid 20s.

It is a big risk, though.

Johnson would have to survive an election campaign. He is a better campaigner than Theresa May, but he shares many of the characteristics that caused her to lose her majority in 2017 despite starting with a poll lead of 15-20 points.

Johnson, too, is relentlessly divisive and scornful of the half of the country that disagrees with him, his leadership campaign minimised his uncontrolled media appearances and he is reliant on Downing Street advisers who are abrasive and unpopular among his colleagues.

A statistical model by Focal Data estimates that on current polling the Conservatives would make a small net loss of seats since 2017, making it hard for anyone to form a stable government.

Britain's crisis might well have further depths to plumb.

Author bio

Lewis Baston is a writer on politics and elections and former director of research for the Electoral Reform Society.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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