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Going long. Why a 2019 election is a lot less likely than gamblers seem to think

October 10th, 2019

Let us embark on a voyage of discovery and fantasy. Imagine, if you will, that you are Jeremy Corbyn. You are to retreat to your allotment for the day to clear your mind of the ephemeral nonsense of Westminster and to plan strategically. As you cycle past a couple of your favourite manhole covers, you start to turn your mind to the burning question: on what basis do you want to conduct the next election?

We need to conduct this thought process properly. This may be hard for those who are not fully signed-up Corbynites, because Jeremy Corbyn’s priorities are unlikely to match their own. For starters, Brexit appears not to register particularly highly either way in them.  

We can assume that he has confidence in his own campaigning abilities after the 2017 general election and as a result he is unlikely to be too downcast about current polls. Once the biased media are under strict election rules, he will, he will believe, be able to move the conversation onto subjects that suit him and he will be able to get his message unmediated to a receptive public.

He has in the past shown an apparent keenness for an early election, though it is unclear whether that is for public consumption and whether he would still be as keen if he were to be installed as Prime Minister once the current placeholder government has collapsed. Let’s take him at his word for now.

At present it looks pretty likely that the government is going to fail to reach a deal with the EU and is going to have to agree to any extension that the EU offers it. While it would be hard to blame the EU if it were to cut its losses and not offer a further extension, the EU will probably inwardly sigh and offer another six months or so.  

The Benn Act will require the Prime Minister to submit to Parliament’s will on the subject. It is an unclear whether Boris Johnson will stick around to surrender to Parliamentary sovereignty or stomp off to let someone else do the dirty deed. For now, Jeremy Corbyn can reasonably work on the basis that Boris Johnson is not going to throw the keys of the Batmobile at him. If he’s going to be got out of Downing Street, Labour is probably going to have to do some of the heavy lifting.

Jeremy Corbyn may want an early election but he will want it on terms that suit him. Boris Johnson will be damaged goods if 1 November comes and goes with Brexit not having happened, and he seems determined to try to force a snap election to capitalise on the public anger that he has whipped up against those groups that do not fully subscribe to a no-deal Brexit. Ideally, the Conservatives would want an election in as short a period as possible.

Fortunately for Jeremy Corbyn, he does not need to indulge the master strategists of Downing Street. What is in Boris Johnson’s interests are unlikely to be in his own. Jeremy Corbyn will want as much time as possible to draw discussion onto other subjects and to use the election period that he believes works in his favour.

Let’s map this onto dates. Parliament has now been prorogued until 14 October. When it returns, the Queen’s speech will be given and then debated: this will take the remainder of that week. On 17 October, the EU holds its summit at which any revised withdrawal deal will be agreed (it almost certainly won’t). Parliament is to sit on Saturday 19 October but this seems too soon for Britain to have requested an extension to the Article 50 period, for the EU to have offered a period and for the Prime Minister, directed as necessary by the House of Commons to have accepted one, so no vote to bring Parliament to an end will pass then. MPs will want to see that the extension has been implemented before risking that.

In practice, those three conditions will take a few days to be fulfilled and there will no doubt be some squawking and screeching en route. Let’s allow a week for the three necessary actions, though Boris Johnson might well take it right to the wire if he can. On 25 October, the anniversary of Agincourt, Boris Johnson might throw down the gauntlet (Express headline: “God For England, Boris And St George!”). Boris Johnson may well try the gambit of proposing an early election and dare the opposition to oppose, which would mean that an election could be held just 25 working days (five weeks) later. That, if passed, would allow for an election on Thursday 5 December, assuming the convention of holding an election on a Thursday is kept.

If Jeremy Corbyn is wise, he will leave the gauntlet on the ground. It can simply be sidestepped by Jeremy Corbyn by demanding Boris Johnson resign to get out of the way and directing his MPs to abstain, just as he did in September: a direct vote for an early election requires a two-thirds majority of MPs actively voting for it, so an abstention counts as a vote against. 

By proposing a vote of no confidence instead, he can add at least two extra weeks to set out his positive agenda: there is a 14 day period during which a new government can seek to command the confidence of the Commons before a general election is automatically called. Even if the vote of no confidence is called and passed the next working day, that means that the earliest Thursday that an election would be held would be 19 December. It has to be very questionable whether Boris Johnson would want to hold an election so close to Christmas even if he has the option to do so.

With only minor procrastination, Jeremy Corbyn can ensure an even longer election period. If he dithers until Guy Fawkes Day before bringing a vote of no confidence, the earliest date for an election would be Friday 27 December.  In practice, it is unthinkable that the Prime Minister would choose that date, not least because a lot of Conservative voters might be out of the country on holiday. The following week would also be out of bounds, so the earliest practical date is Thursday 9 January (again, assuming the normal convention of holding an election on a Thursday is adhered to). He might even push it back another week. All this gives more time for Labour to move the conversation on from Brexit and onto more friendly terrain.

This all has obvious betting implications.  First, a November election looks unlikely. Even if Jeremy Corbyn plays ball with Boris Johnson’s plans – and it is not clear why he would – the timing looks wrong.  Even at the current price of Betfair of 9.2 or thereabouts, it still looks too short.

Secondly, a December election does not look especially likely. It needs both main parties to cooperate or for Boris Johnson to be desperate enough to risk the public’s wrath at the idea of a Christmas election. It doesn’t really look like the odds-on shot that the Betfair market makes it just now.

All of which means that there is also a lot of value on the “year of general election” market in laying 2019 at its current price of 1.56. You can see how a 2019 election could happen. But you really wouldn’t say that it is more likely than not. Bet accordingly.

Alastair Meeks