Yves here. We again turn to Clive, this time to correct information in the US media. And I hope you don’t mind the intense focus on Brexit, but this is a very hot topic right now with major ramifications no matter how it plays out.
By Clive, a bank IT professional and Japonophile
Some U.S. media, such as the New York Times, is spectating about the prospect of another UK parliamentary election happening soon. While this might suggest the prospect of a new government getting a mandate to possibly reverse Brexit, there are many obstacles in the way.
For a start, a lot of foreign (and even domestic UK) media’s information is out of date. Until fixed-term parliament legislation was passed during the previous coalition administration in 2011, a UK prime minister had absolute discretion as to when they could call an election. All they had to do was drive a mile or two and get an audience with the Queen and she would give permission to dissolve parliament. In theory, the monarch could refuse, but that would just plunge the country into a constitutional crisis so that was never going to happen in reality. Then there’d be elections.
But not now. The legislation for fixed term parliaments isn’t tested, but it’s fairly water-tight. Parliaments run for 5 years. There are very narrow options for calling an early election.
The Act stipulates either:
1) an early election can be called by the House of Commons passing a motion (“That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.”) by — and this is important — a 2/3rds majority
2) an early election can be called following a no-confidence motion (“That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.”) by a straight majority. This early election can be cancelled if within the proceeding 14-day period there is a “confidence” motion passed.
There’s no other obvious wriggle-room. Apart from the Queen who (and this must date back from ancient royal prerogatives) can still dissolve parliament. But she won’t ev-ah do that.
That 2/3rds majority is a big hurdle. Labour and Tory Leavers could easily muster the 1/3rd of MPs needed to block an early election motion.
This would give the only options being either a no-confidence motion (in which the Conservatives would have to vote down their government). Or, of course, all legislation can be repealed.
However, only parliament can repeal the legislation so as a minimum it would have to get a majority. And would the Conservative MPs vote for it? Those who are on the Remain side, perhaps; those who are on the Leave side would see it for what it was – an attempt to refute and overturn the referendum result. Some Labour MPs may vote for it for the same reason as the Remain conservatives but some would join the Leave Conservatives in opposing overturning fixed term parliaments because not all Labour MPs support Remain.
The SNP would be tempted to do whatever causes England the most misery, which would be to end the fixed term parliament and pave the way for elections;. But then again, if there was an election and if the referendum result was overturned by a new parliament then the SNP would no longer have any ammunition for another Scottish independence referendum there. So the SNP may end up abstaining. In conclusion – there’s no certainty that a bill getting rid of the fixed term parliament legislation would get through the House of Commons.
And then it would have to go through the upper house (the House of Lords). Even more unpredictable, as there’s a lot more independent members there. Plus even less party loyalty. The Parliament Act could be used to force it through if the Lords voted down repeal of fixed term parliaments but now you’re talking a year or more of political wrangling before there’s even the possibility of an election.
It’s sort-of possible that some lawyerly parsing of the fixed term parliament legislation could be used to allow the current parliament to be dissolved. But the legislation is mentioned untested. Any attempt to call an early election would be subject to a legal challenge by those who opposed it. This would have to go through the High Court, an appeal regardless of who won or lost and would inevitably end up in the Supreme Court. It could even – oh, the irony of ironies! – end up getting leave to be heard in the European Court of Justice. Even best-case, you’re looking at a similar year or more of legal shenanigans.
It is also all-too-easy to view multilateral problems in a simplistically unilateral way. The rest of the EU is not going to stand idly by while the UK tries to work out if it really did vote to leave and if it did, did it mean it or not. If we’re still talking like this in 6 month’s time, the European Parliament or the Commission (or both) will be discussing passing a Directive on how to get rid of errant member states who’ve violated whatever trumped-up reasons they see fit to cite. Or else existing treaties will be scrutinised for mechanisms to achieve the same thing. It would be naïve to rule out the Eurocrats doing that right now, just in case.
[Yves interjecting: Clive’s reading may seem extreme, but recall the thuggish way the ECB was deployed to discipline Greece. If the UK is perceived to be behaving in a self-indulgently destructive manner, you can expect the EU to look for ways to retaliate. I’d expect the first line of defense to be to examine existing treaties where the UK has been allowed out of bureaucratic convenience to get away with things that work to the UK’s advantage or because the issue is touchy and start enforcing them strictly.]
Rather than fresh elections, a second referendum is more plausible. But even that is like a field littered with landmines. If I had to gauge the consensus of public opinion, regardless of whether people voted Leave or Remain, a second referendum has the whiff of being an affront to democracy. The usual metaphor employed is that of a soccer match. As in, England lost against Iceland in the European Cup earlier in the week. We don’t get to play the match again just because one side didn’t realise what they were up against. Or that the losers didn’t like the result. Or that England thinks it could now put up a better side. Or because of some other unintended consequence. The moral high ground doesn’t count for a lot these days, but it can’t simply be ignored either.
Another mistake is to try to frame current events in a comfortable and familiar back-to-business-as-usual narrative.
Both Labour and Conservative party discipline is in complete disarray. Each individual sitting MP is having to evaluate their chances of reelection *in their own particular constituency* based on the factors in play. Even at the best of times, and these certainly aren’t, Westminster is liable to become a collection of fiefdoms and tribal groupings rather than aligning to the strictures of U.S. two party politics.
Some “Blairite” MPs might deduce they would not get reelected because they have thin majorities and would fall victim to Labour’s current turmoil. Others are under direct threat from UKIP and would judge that the electorate in their area could tell a mile off that another election was a re-run of the referendum by the back-door. Another class of Blairites would, again, correctly, guess that if they have a Corbyn-loyalist local party they face the imminent wrath of activists and the consequence inability to organise a local campaign. There’s plenty of reasons why a Blairite MP wants to avoid an election at all costs.
Leave Conservative MPs do not want to face their voters now either because Remainer voters will take their revenge. Or Leave voters would see a new election – especially if another Conservative government might back-track on the Leave result – as the perfect excuse to defect to UKIP.
Often forgotten too is that neither the Conservative party nor Labour have any money to fight another election so soon. Even a no-frills campaign costs money and no party has got any reserve funding. The fundraising cycle for the next election has not even begun for the party Chairmen and after the animosity of the referendum, they cannot guarantee to be able to tap previous donors. Another election so soon after the last one will cripple both parties financially.
Don’t bet on an imminent UK election. There’s more reasons why it won’t happen than why it will.