23 July 2019

Beware of Brenda: Why seeking an election before 2022 would be a mistake

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Nick Clegg’s legacy — the Fixed Term Parliament Act — has already proved ineffective. While the next General Election is due to take place on May 5th 2022, there are several ways an early vote could be called before. The Prime Minister could call an early election, for instance, given agreement from two-thirds of the House of Commons. Or, the Government could be brought down by a vote of no confidence (provided it is not reversed by another vote within 14 days).

Speculation varies between suggestions that an election could be scheduled within a few weeks or not for a few months. But the new Prime Minister and other MPs are acutely conscious of the admonishment delivered by Brenda from Bristol, talking about the 2017 General Election: “Not another one.”

While there were various reasons the Conservatives performed below expectations in 2017, it was in large part the very decision to hold it which hurt the Conservatives. Voters felt it was unnecessary and opportunistic.

One potential early election scenario is that MPs force a vote to thwart a “no deal” Brexit. A small number of Conservative MPs have suggested they would contemplate this. What is often missed, however, is that there would be some Labour MPs (or former Labour MPs sitting as independents) who would not back such a move. Plenty of Labour MPs would be worried about losing to the Brexit Party – some of the turkeys will vote for Christmas, but not all of them.

If legislation was passed to revoke Article 50, that would also likely necessitate a General Election. But that notion is even more remote. As Martin Howe QC wrote in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday: “It is much more difficult, and probably impossible, to force through a bill against a government which is actually determined to stop it. Even if somehow a bill to postpone or stop Brexit were to be passed through both Houses, the government retains the ultimate power to advise the Queen to refuse Royal Assent.”

So let us assume that Brexit takes place on October 31st. Would Boris Johnson then, or his own volition, call a General Election? It is pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn is unpopular and might be replaced by someone more credible. Also, even after Brexit is over the line, the combined Conservative/DUP majority still could make for difficulties.

Still, going to the polls before 2022 would probably be a mistake. For a start, the longer a vote is delayed, the greater the chance for Brexit to succeed (and  Brexiteers to feel vindicated).  Let us presume that come November 1st, planes still fly, shelves in the shops are still full, and medical supplies continue to be available. That would not mean the “Remainers” will instantly recant. “Just you wait,” will be their message.

If (as Johnson is clearly confident will be the case) the fears continue to be confounded by the passage of the time then the mood will gradually change. Chicken Licken will concede that the sky is not falling in.

A couple of years will allow the benefits to start materialising such as new free trade deals. The scrapping of some of the silliest and most damaging EU regulations will be important, too. Unburdening the UK from regulations on animal welfare or the environment or increasing flexibility over the VAT rules would be good places to start.

After some time has passed, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and the Green Party would then have to decide if they want to adopt a policy to rejoin the EU (along with abolishing the pound to sign up for the Euro, which would certainly be a condition). The more established Brexit becomes, the less public appetite there will be for any such proposition.

The counter argument is that Brexit is not enough. That the whole point of Johnson is to liberate us from the “drift and dither” of the May era. But the key explanation of May’s caution was that it was inherent in her approach. Even if she had enjoyed a working majority we would have waited in vain for bold and coherent reform.

The spirit of the Johnson administration should be to march towards the sound of gunfire. Certainly it should seek to press ahead with the changes the country needs and then allow Parliament to decide. If it was thwarted on really important business then an election would indeed be justified. To take an obvious example, if the next Budget is radical, tax cutting one and it is not passed then a fresh mandate would be required.

But would the MPs dare? Would any Conservative MPs vote against the Budget? remember this is after Brexit had taken place so all the Remainer would be likely to achieve would be their own deselections. Would all the opposition MPs unite against it? Let us assume that it includes a big tax cut for the low paid. My hunch it (or 80 or 90 per cent of it) would get through.

If the Government put forward a popular Conservative agenda with measures on fighting crime, increasing choice in education, and widening home ownership, then it could vigorously argue the case for whatever legal changes were required. There might be the odd defeat here and there but probably the main substance of it would get through. That has been the experience of previous Government’s without an effective majority – the 1974-79 Labour Government got through a lot of controversial socialist legislation.

Perhaps I am being optimistic. Maybe there will be a debilitating parliamentary deadlock where nothing of consequence can be agreed. “Flagship” bill voted down at Second Reading – not just having to concede the odd pesky amendment. Very well. Then the fair-minded British public would probably accept it was time for them to trudge off to the ballot box again. That their journey was really necessary. The mistake will be not to let that process take its course. The Government might find it is prevented from carrying out the tasks it believes are needed. It should not give up without trying. Beware of Brenda.

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Harry Phibbs is a blogger and journalist.