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The catch. Why Boris Johnson probably won’t be going for an early general election

July 16th, 2019

Bet against an early general election. Boris Johnson has ruled it out. As he is Britain’s presumed Prime Minister, we can take him at his word. And here’s why.

Let’s look at the counter-argument first. You will not lack for Leavers arguing that Boris Johnson should force an election as soon as possible. Parliament, they argue, is blocking Brexit. So Boris Johnson should call an election to obtain a mandate for leaving, deal or no deal, by 31 October 2019. The opposition could not sensibly oppose one. By this means, Nigel Farage would be put back in his crypt and with the opposition divided, the Conservatives could sweep to power.

You can see the appeal of the idea. There’s only one problem. It doesn’t work.

There are two ways in which a general election can be called under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. First, two thirds of the House of Commons can vote for one. Or secondly, if the government loses a vote of no confidence and 14 day elapses without a new government having a vote of confidence passed in it, a general election is automatically held.

Let’s look at the direct vote first. To get to two thirds, Boris Johnson needs to get Jeremy Corbyn on board (there is no route to a two thirds majority that does not have both Labour and the Conservatives voting for the proposition).  On the face of it, that shouldn’t be too difficult: Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for an election and after the 2017 campaign no doubt fancies his chances of recreating Corbynmania.  

But Jeremy Corbyn has no reason to play on Boris Johnson’s terms, not when he can hamstring his opponent. Boris Johnson has tied his credibility to securing Brexit by 31 October 2019. This is not a deadline that Labour recognise and nor do they need to agree to it now. The clock is ticking and Labour can reasonably argue that they do not want a general election to eat into the very limited negotiating time.

In short, they can properly insist, before agreeing to an early election, on the government negotiating an extension of the Article 50 deadline to, say, 31 December 2019 so that when they come to power they have sufficient time to reach their own terms with the EU.

This is not just reasonable as a matter of principle, it’s also superb politics.  For if the Article 50 deadline is extended beyond 31 October 2019, that part of the Conservative party that has Boris Johnson on probation will decamp en masse to the Brexit party. The new Prime Minister’s credibility on his central policy would be destroyed. As Leader of the Opposition, that makes for an appealing backdrop to a general election.

Of course, once you’ve announced that you want a general election, if your opponent agrees to the principle but sets a preliminary condition that is not obviously absurd, you’re a bit stuck. So Boris Johnson would be taking a huge risk that he would be walking into a fiasco.

Whenever a politician puts a sign on his back saying “kick me”, his opponents will queue up to oblige. Seeking to call an election on your flagship policy while giving your opponents the opportunity to destroy it would risk getting the Johnson posterior booted so hard that he would clear the crossbar at Twickenham. There’s the chance that Labour might take a different approach, but would you draw up your strategy on the basis that your opponents will be as accommodating as possible?

This problem also potentially applies to arranging an election by a vote of no confidence, but there is a further problem with a vote of no confidence that should also concern Boris Johnson. In the 14 day countdown, someone else may be able to put together a majority. Given that the whole basis of seeking an election is that the government does not reliably control the House of Commons, that is quite conceivable.  

So a general election brought about by intentional acts before 31 October 2019 looks unlikely. While an election could be called immediately after that date, no one is going to thank the Government for a Christmas general election.  All this means that betting against a general election in 2019 at the current odds on Betfair of 2.36 (11/8) looks like a smart move. I’m on.

Alastair Meeks