It feels like since the moment the final results of the 2017 General Election became clear to the country, that there have been commentators, journalists, and Labour and Conservative MPs alike asking one question; will there be another snap election?
Theresa May doesn’t seem to have a majority in Parliament for her Chequers Brexit proposals, nor do the hard-Brexiteers have a majority for a ‘no deal’ scenario, and there seems to be very little open support for a People’s Vote from either of the two largest parties. Labour and their campaign group Momentum have been on an ‘election footing’ since Parliament reconvened, having reportedly prepared an election map strategy to secure them the keys to Number 10, and Corbyn reportedly told Michael Eavis (Glastonbury’s Founder) that he expected to be in Downing Street within six months. But this has not materialised, despite the almost constant state of damage control that the current government seems to be in.
This is because the mechanisms required for a snap election are not as straightforward as they had been historically; it is now much harder to force an early election due to the Fixed Term Parliament Act.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act currently means that there is no election scheduled until 2022 and right now May has the constitutional right to govern until that date. The Act was passed in 2011 by the coalition government to provide more stability to the electoral process and help ensure the coalition government would survive beyond their first year. It also means that there are currently only two routes through which another election could be called before 2022:
- 2/3rds of MPs vote to call an election, or
- There is a vote of no confidence in the government.
The first option is how Theresa May was able to call an election this year, as she had the support of the Labour Party in the vote. However, there is very little chance that enough Conservative MPs could be convinced to vote against the government right now. The Tories would likely face defeat and relegation to the opposition benches, so Corbyn would require a huge backbench Tory rebellion to get anywhere near enough votes, thus we can pretty much rule this out as a possibility.
That leaves them with a vote of no confidence in the government, which needs simply a majority to pass. In the past that could have meant losing a vote on the Budget or the Queen’s Speech, but since the introduction of the Fixed Term Parliament Act the only way for this to be considered a vote of no confidence is if the Commons expressly votes that it has ‘no confidence in Her Majesty’s government’ — in those exact words. The last time this happened was after the 1923 election, when a minority Labour government of only 191 MPs was allowed to govern with the backing of the Liberal Party who held 158 seats.
With the backing of all the parties in the opposition, Labour would only need a handful of disgruntled Tories to abstain or vote against the government, or perhaps a few by-election victories and defections, to pass the no confidence motion. But again, you would be asking a number of Conservatives to vote for electoral suicide (of themselves and the party) and despite the obvious split in the party over Brexit, this doesn’t seem particularly likely.
Then, even if this motion was to pass, it would be followed by a two-week period during which alternative governments have the chance to win a confidence vote. In this situation May would be forced to resign and the Conservatives could install a new leader and try to win a confidence vote. Then comes the question of who should replace her, Boris seems to be the most popular choice at the moment for Conservative voters, though he may be too toxic now given his continual drift towards divisive, far-right politics.
If May was to be replaced from within, the Conservatives would simply have to ensure the continued support of the DUP, they have no obligation to call an election. Whilst there may be a public outcry, the Conservatives would probably argue that calling an election in the midst of the Brexit negotiations would be disastrous.
A third option for Labour would be to attempt to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act. It has arguably failed in its goal to produce a more stable government, managing to ensure only one full five-year government before being overruled. However, what it does do is significantly strengthen the position of the party in power, allowing the Conservatives to cling on. The Conservatives had originally put a repeal of the 2011 law in their election manifesto, but there was no mention of it in the Queen’s Speech — most likely because it gives the Conservatives more power in their current position. Labour could table the repeal legislation and dare the Tories to vote against their own manifesto pledge, but this is hardly a foolproof plan either.
So there you have it, a second election is not as inevitable as it may seem. The Fixed Term Parliament Act has made it much more difficult to topple a sitting government and whilst the DUP coalition is unpopular and potentially volatile, it will hold as long as the Conservatives fear losing an election to Labour.