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No-vember election. A betting tip

September 6th, 2019

Picture: On the pavement in Parliament Square. Credit John Rentoul.

I did warn Boris Johnson that going for an early election would not work. If only he’d listened to my advice, he would not be in the pickle of pleading for an election that the Opposition may or may not deign to give him. It would have suited me better as well, because my betting tip at the end of that column is currently well underwater. It just shows the danger of assuming that politicians are going to plan intelligently.

Anyway, we – that is, Boris Johnson and me – are where we are. Where do we all go next? Events are moving fast.  Boris Johnson, having for weeks feigned that he didn’t want an election, has now thrown aside all pretence and has now labelled Jeremy Corbyn a chlorinated chicken (ironically, a label that British retailers would probably not be allowed to use should Boris Johnson cut a new trade deal with the US) for not agreeing to an immediate election.

So when is the next general election going to be? Betfair has two markets on the subject: a market on the year of the election and a market on the month of the election. This is one of those occasions where a little attention to detail can pay dividends.

There must be at least 25 working days (five weeks) between the dissolution of Parliament and the general election date itself.  There is no maximum period, but in practice seven weeks, as in 2017, is the outer limit in the recent past.

Parliament is due to be prorogued at the latest on 12 September. If it is, any general election called before then would normally fall in that five to seven week band. That translates into a 17-31 October window.  In theory, the Prime Minister could extend the latter date but in practice the Opposition are not going to agree to a general election being called without first being sure that the date is fixed and that no chicanery can take place that would result in a no-deal Brexit. If an election is agreed next week, I’d expect it to fall in that normal window. Hands up who fancies an even longer election campaign than last time?

As it happens, I still don’t expect an early election to be agreed next week. The Opposition have every incentive to leave Boris Johnson trapped in office as the Article 50 period comes to be extended again, like a wasp in a spider’s web. If an election were taking place, he could use that as a campaign message. But once it’s history, it will become a memento of his impotence. He may get pity from many for his plight. Pity, however, is not an emotion that politicians crave or find electorally helpful. But I digress.

Assuming that no election is agreed next week, Parliament reconvenes on 14 October. As always, the first item of the new session will be the Queen’s speech. That is then debated. The debate normally takes six days. The government could, I suppose, dispense with usual formalities and seek an election at once, but having prorogued on the purported basis that they needed time to prepare for the new session, it would look completely ridiculous if it didn’t do the Queen’s speech debate properly – especially as they couldn’t be sure of getting an election anyway.So that seems a fairly safe assumption.

That takes us to the close of 21 October. Let’s assume that a general election is immediately triggered, though it’s not at all clear why there would suddenly be a rush. The minimum five week period (which, bear in mind, in practice could only be obtained by agreement between the parties) takes us to Monday 25 November. If a general election is going to be on the customary Thursday, that gives one Thursday in November when the election can take place, 28 November.So that gives a four day window in October when a November general election might even conceivably be called.

But I am doubtful that agreement would be reached between the parties so easily. Once the danger of no-deal Brexit is passed, a straightforward vote of no confidence would surely look much more attractive to the Labour party, which builds a further 14 day period into the process. In any case, Boris Johnson could not rely on agreement being reached between the parties easily, so he would need to plan a timetable accordingly.

All of this points to a November election date looking distinctly unlikely. If the prorogation goes ahead, any election called before it would in all probability take place in October and any election called after it would in all probability take place in December or later. For an election to take place in November itself, we would need to land on a pin.

The betting markets have not been paying attention to the detail. The “month of general election” market, which is an active market with over £600,000 matched, currently has November last matched at 2.3 (5/4). This price seems quite bonkers to me.

How would I price it? There is perhaps a 1 in 3 chance that next week Parliament will agree to an election (I think that’s probably a bit on the high side).  If it does, I’d say there’s about a 1 in 10 chance that it will agree on a date in November. If it doesn’t, there’s again perhaps a 1 in 3 chance (again, I think that’s probably a bit on the high side) that Parliament will rapidly agree on a general election and about a 1 in 10 chance that it then will agree on a date in November. Even rounding up to allow for curveballs like the terms of prorogation changing or the government abandoning the Queen’s speech, I can’t get this above a cumulative 1 in 12 chance.

So this seems to me like the clearest of lays. I’ve filled my boots.

Alastair Meeks