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Brexit: Why the UK is Unlikely to Have a General Election Soon

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For a start, a lot of foreign (and even domestic UK) media’s information is out of date.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.

Analysing the Fixed Term Parliament Act

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

Or:

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 Or, of course, all legislation can be repealed.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.

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25 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    Nicely put, and yes you are quite right, a lot of supposed political experts forgot all about the fixed term Act.

    I would comment that there is a potentially legally watertight way for an early election to be called – you said the Queen would never dissolve parliament, but I suspect that if there was a situation of an out and out civil war within the Tory party making forming a government impossible, or a major crisis making Scotland independence look inevitable, I suspect that a small group of the Great and Good representing the major parties would pay a visit to the Palace and put the argument that it would be in the interest of holding the Union together (and one of the few things we know about the Queen is that she loves the Union) is to insist on new elections. Its not a probable scenario, but I don’t think its out of the question.

    In terms of a timetable, if of course this didn’t happen, then Brexit is inevitable within this Parliament. The next election is scheduled for 2020, so it seems highly unlikely a government could, even if it wanted to, put off starting the Article 50 process until after 2018.

    1. Clive

      Yes, I did chew this one over in my mind. While I’d normally say not in a million years would the sovereign intervene, if this just rumbles on and on and on, and things get worse and worse and worse, the Queen dissolving parliament would a) allow everyone involved to save face (you could blame the Queen, but no-one would really do that given the monarchy’s popularity) and b) even if there was a knock-on constitutional crisis, that crisis could be not as bad as the crisis which prompted it. It would be a least-worst outcome. In theory anyway, but you could of course just end up adding a constitutional crisis onto all the other crises…

      1. James Levy

        Clive, in whose interest do you think would it be to make it a constitutional crisis? I mean, who wants this to drag on and on, and has the ideological space to attack what is historically the constitutional prerogative of the Crown? The Tories? The UKIP? The Blairites? Doesn’t seem likely to me that they’d want to raise such a decision to the level of a constitutional crisis. But I haven’t lived in the UK for over a decade and may be wrong.

        1. Clive

          Sorry if I gave any impression as to my level of understanding (ability in crystal-ball gazing?) on this aspect in the above comment! It really does fit into the classification “unknown unknowns”. There’s zilch in the way of recent historical precedent, it’s impossible to foresee how the public would react, the constitution is famously not a written one… It is also in terms of likelihood in the “Elvis found alive on the moon” range of probability.

    2. James Levy

      I agree. If the Conservatives can’t find a leader who commands a majority it is pretty much the responsibility of the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call for elections. At 90 Elizabeth II has little to lose and given the fact that the populace very much wants to see one of Diana’s children on the throne the republican backlash would be small if vociferous. And since the Queen would not be naming a government or telling anyone who to vote for, just saying “electorate, give me a majority damn it” the republican case against her dissolving Parliament would be weak.

    3. efschumacher

      The Queen is 90. Given the stresses of this moment, anything can happen. Has anybody canvassed Charles III on his desire to “Take Back Control”?

      1. James Levy

        I read an interesting article once about how the Royal Family is hedged in by the way in which everything has become a party political issue. When the future George VI was working to organize and fund camps for poor boys during the Great Depression this was not considered beyond his ken–it was simply charity work. But today such a move would be considered as a backhand slight on the Tories and denounced by the press and used as a cudgel by the republicans to beat the monarchy over the head with (which would be disingenuous in the extreme for as a matter of policy most would be for such efforts). Technically, neither party made Brexit an issue binding under party discipline. Members of both major parties supported both Remain and Leave. But if Prince Charles had the temerity to simply exercise his right to free speech and voice an opinion, he’d be slaughtered.

        1. Art Vanderlay

          There are c. 3,000 charities with a member of the Royal Family as a patron in the UK. They include children’s charities. HM is currently patron of Barnardo’s, a charity that looks after vulnerable children. Phil the Greek established and is patron of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. For children. Young Charlie has the Prince’s Trust that currently claims to be supporting 59,000 young people who are unemployed or performing poorly in school.

          The article you read wasn’t interesting. It was complete nonsense.

  2. paul

    The blue tories will be happy to use the remaining three years to loot the public sector,salt the earth where social security lay and hang on for the boundary changes that would cement their electoral advantages.

    De pfefell johnson is nothing if not shameless enough to bide his time.
    I’m sure he whispered ‘cometh the hour..’ to the mirror as he carefully tousled his hair before announcing he was scarpering.

    Corbyn,who I think will survive (in the time that the tories have reunited and launched a leadership campaign, his challengers have yet to come out from the skirting) has a much trickier job.
    The big problems being that neither the PLP or the eurogroup will give him much,if anything, to work with and the condtions that continued austerity creates will cause the victims to look elsewhere,anywhere.

    Quite a bind.

  3. Tim

    Canada had and has similar legislation however former Prime Minister Stephen Harper choose to call an early election anyways and the Supreme Court of Canada refused to stop him.

    **I will that this and many other abuses of power by Stephen Harper have a lot to do with why Stephen Harper is now FORMER Prime Minister.

    1. Tim

      I would also guess there will be a significantly long prorogation of Parliament once a new leader is choosen just to bring up another one of Stephen Harper’s old tricks.

      1. Clive

        I often wonder whether we should hold a Grand Naked Capitalism World’s Best Worst Serving Politician Competition.

        For every Trump and Clinton, I’d see you and raise you an Abe. Some of my compatriots might play their hand of Cameron’s, Boris’s and Gove’s. I’d need like to ask for Skippy’s input on Aus, as I’ve sadly too little knowledge on that one.

        But then, you could stun us all as the rank outsiders by trying to resurrect Harper.

        1. Vatch

          The most deserving candidates are probably people I’ve never heard of, but I’ll try anyhow. I nominate Kim Jong Un and Robert Mugabe. If Rick Tyler (“Make America White Again”) manages to get himself elected to Congress, he will be a prime candidate. Since he’s not a serving politician, he isn’t eligible (yet).

  4. begob

    Dilly of a pickle. I don’t see how the ECJ would have competence on any of these issues. And lately it looks like SCOTUK has been flicking the Vs at Strasbourg.

  5. paul

    Another unexpected bonus is that the tories will proceed to shit all over the GEN POP, because they voted to leave.
    You did ask for it,they will say.

  6. local to oakland

    Thank you for the coverage. Especially since major UK news outlets now steer us to US only versions online.

    One request. If you have time, or find a volunteer could you provide some basic factual background like you did for complex financial instruments? I understand if you choose not to, but I am ignorant and I took a semester course that was an introduction to EU political structure. The argument in an earlier post re ‘Four Freedoms’ shows a basic disconnect in knowledge. Most of us have no opportunity to learn even the most basic facts about the EU.

  7. Roger Smith

    Let’s back up for a second. What exactly is the monarch’s role in all of this? (U.S. here)

    I was under the impression that the Queen was basically a elite status symbol for national pride and gawking tourists. Do elections only happen at the approval of the monarch?

    1. James Levy

      The monarch is the head of state. She has the power on the advice of her ministers to dissolve Parliament and call for elections and is tradition-bound to appoint the head of any party which commands a majority in the House of Commons Prime Minister. She also gets to meet with the PM once a week and can see any government papers she so chooses (so she can discuss key issues with the PM). Queen Elizabeth has been a keen reader of Red Boxes (the ones that Official Papers are moved around in) throughout her tenure as monarch. Technically, the Royal Assent (her signature) is needed on any bill passed by Parliament to make it a law. She has the traditional power to refuse her assent (veto the bill) but that hasn’t happened since Queen Anne in 1706. Her most important contribution is that she can talk to her PM’s straight and in private and has an unbroken record of keeping her mouth shut.

      1. Roger Smith

        Wow, that is way more involvement than I thought. Typical agreement and silence aside, are the Brits really okay with this? Ultimately it is probably less convoluted that the party system here but that ode to monarchy seem so glaringly unrepresentative. The U.K (or England depending on Parliament’s reach across the Kingdom). is a much smaller place than the U.S. granted. Is it that proximity that keeps citizens feeling connected to this?

        Also, is dissolution the only event that triggers parliamentary elections?

        1. James Levy

          No, Parliaments have a statutory existence and have to face the electorate ever 5 years.

          Most British people are fine with the constitutional monarchy. It is pretty much what the president of Germany or Israel does, although it is not a party political position (which is considered a good thing). I for one like separating the Head of State and Head of Government. As we saw after 9/11, the tendency to look to “the President” here in the USA can be a bit frightening. he can, and does, use his symbolic position to push for highly partisan crap that should be seen as highly partisan crap and not the actions of “our leader.” Also, Queen Elizabeth is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces (for the same reason the President is here–to keep that job in civilian and not professional military hands). Prime Ministers have a lot tougher time sending troops hither and yon without Parliamentary approval because in the last analysis the military is not directly answerable to them. This was why the Syrian vote was such a big deal–Parliament told Cameron “no way” and he had no power to say “well, I’m the Commander in Chief and I’m doing it anyway” the way Obama de facto did in Libya.

          it has its strengths and weaknesses, just as our system does. And if you compare the power of the monarchy to the power of the ridiculously undemocratic Senate, well, which is worse?

          1. myshkin

            ” And if you compare the power of the monarchy to the power of the ridiculously undemocratic Senate, well, which is worse?”

            IMHO that’s easy. The monarchy, by far.

            “For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”
            -From the Putney debates of course. Along way from where we are now but in another sense…

  8. H. Alexander Ivey

    “And I hope you don’t mind the intense focus on Brexit, but this is a very hot topic right now”

    I can’t begin to tell how flabergasted I am with Brexit! Here I was, expecting the Trump an Hillary show to carry on thru the summer and, being an American in Singapore, being quizzed with “What’s with Trump?” and “How about Hillary?” by the natives and getting to pontificate (rant) to my heart’s content. But no! Brexit happened!! And being a non-UK, non-EU citizen, I can only watch from the sidelines.

    :-(

    (Apology for the snark at others expense – Brexit is really not funny – fascinating, but not funny.)

  9. Pinhead

    “Each individual sitting MP is having to evaluate their chances of reelection *in their own particular constituency* based on the factors in play.” Precisely. Most MPs are smart enough to understand actuarial tables. They show that the Brexit majority will be dead within two years and most MPs are looking forward to a political career that goes well beyond that.

  10. David Tolich

    Brexit was a non-binding referendum. Nothing needs to be done. Just tell Europe that the UK is remaining in the EU. Parliament is not bound by the Brexit result. UK political parties may want to address the issues raised by the Leave voters. The IMF in early June reported that the IMF had “oversold the Neo-liberal Agenda”. It has got it wrong for the last 40 years. The report is a Get out of Jail card to address the issues raised by the Leave voters. Globalisation, Inequality, Political Elitism etc. Such actions may also address the potential collateral damage that a Remain resolution could create.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This is not anywhere near as simply as you suggest. And this is not a Parliamentary matter unless an MP decides to challenge the Government’s authority. That may still happen but you would have expected that to happen sooner. The Government took the position when it got Parliamentary approval for the referendum that the Government would proceed with invoking Article 50 if the Leave vote won.

      Conservatives voted 58% for Leave. Not only would ignoring the referendum go against the public’s will, it would even more specifically be going against what its own party members wanted.

      The Conservatives have done nothing whatsoever to prepare the public for a repudiation of the referendum. Moreover, despite the leadership having pumped for Remain, most of the media, and many influential Tory pundits pumped hard for Leave. The Conservatives will pay a high political prices if they ignore the vote. UKIP does have a seat, and I expect they would issue a challenge and make the MPs debate the Government ignoring the referendum. That would inflict costs on the Conservatives to the advantage of UKIP. And the debate itself would tear the country apart.

      Moreover, the leave voters have opposed interests. Many of the lower education voters who voted for Leave were anti immigration. If the UK stays in the EU, nothing will change on that front. Moreover a large faction of the Leave backers, in particular Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and their close allies, were using the “leave the EU to get out of that horrible regulation” to cut worker rights, and therefore worker incomes, even further. So they wanted to use Leave to move the UK closer to, not further from, being a neoliberal paradise. Please tell me how to square that circle.

      As Clive said via e-mail:

      My Tory friends are already all over the new Conservative leader contest so I get both party loyalist views and also MSM reporting info. For Conservative supporters, be they Leave or Remain, neither have the stomach to try to re-run the referendum. Nor do they want to try and paper over the cracks. They want a “safe pair of hands” to make the best out of the whole mess but to stick with the Leave decision. Don’t underestimate the determination of Leavers to get out of the EU — and the more the EU acts like a roach motel, the greater the resolve to withstand whatever pain it takes to get out of a bad deal. I can though hear you saying “Ha, tell me how well that worked out for Greece” (!) — and the pain is not of course distributed equally or to the most deserving.

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