When a British government loses control over parliament, the natural remedy is to hold a general election. Why prolong everyone’s agony? But despite Theresa May having now failed twice to pass her signature Brexit deal, there is no sign she is willing to go back to the country.
Jeremy Corbyn is keen for an early election to break the deadlock and others are beginning to agree with him. Asked this week what would happen if the government’s deal was rejected for a second time, a cabinet minister replied: ‘an election in two weeks’ time’.
It’s a sentiment shared by Charles Walker, the vice chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories. Without a majority for a deal, he says, ‘as sure as night follows day there will be a general election within a matter of days or weeks’. Failure to hold an election, he says, leaves ‘ministers who operate with impunity’ and ‘backbenchers at each other’s throats’. ‘The country deserves more,’ he says.
Yet an election would be dicey for the Tories. MPs are indeed at each other’s throats, on a daily basis. Many government aides are fed up. They’re more likely to go on holiday than hit the campaign trail.
The Conservative manifesto would be an enormous headache. ‘What would we say we’ve achieved?’ asks one minister. ‘The Brexit policy would need to be something we would have to try and agree with the EU instead of May’s deal.’ It could be the ‘Malthouse Compromise’, which would bin her deal, and instead offer Brexit divorce payments to the EU and guarantees on citizens’ rights in exchange for a transition period. Given that the manifesto would promote a hypothetical deal, voters may be sceptical about putting their trust in it.
And who would lead the party into this election? Thanks to a botched attempt by Brexiteers to oust May before Christmas, the Prime Minister is technically safe for a whole year. She promised not to lead MPs into an election in 2022 but said nothing about 2019. One minister believes the party would have little choice but to have May lead the party if an election happened this year. However, one No. 10 aide envisages a potential cabinet walkout if she tries. Many ministers live in fear of turning on the TV to see a podium put outside No. 10 without the governmental crest: the sign of an election.
If an election is called, it will likely be because Eurosceptics want one — through impatience and frustration that Brexit is being softened and delayed. A number could team up with Corbyn in a confidence vote to bring the government down. At this point, if May could be pressured to go (a big ‘if’), an ‘expedited’ leadership contest could then take place.
While bringing down your own government to trigger an election might not sound like the best backdrop for winning a majority, a number of Tory Brexiteers insist the public would go along with it so long as it resulted in the referendum result being respected.
The polls suggest that these MPs might be right to think this: on Tuesday, one poll put the Conservatives ten points ahead of Labour. The emergence of the Independent Group (TIG) — made up of former pro-EU Labour and Tory MPs — is predicted to split the Labour vote and prove pivotal in helping the Tories win tricky marginals. However, each TIG MP — with the possible exception of Chukka Umunna — is likely to be wiped out if there’s an election this year. They’ll do what they can to prevent one.
There are many arguments against an early election, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. If May can’t pass her deal in a third vote as No. 10 aides hope, a snap election looks increasingly likely.