If May Loses on Tuesday: Is This Her Route to a General Election?

Last Tuesday, the government lost three votes in the House of Commons. These defeats show how they have lost control of the House as the DUP increasingly withdraws their support. This loss of control is likely to be confirmed on Tuesday 11th, with the government losing the ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal reached with the EU. Prime Ministers of the past could have made similarly crucial votes a vote a matter of confidence, meaning that if the government lost, the Prime Minister would ‘call’ a general election. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 now prevents this. Theresa May is the first Prime Minister who, in their hour of need, finds this weapon missing from their armoury. It is something else for which she can thank David Cameron.

Jeremy Corbyn has indicated that should the government lose the ‘meaningful vote’, he will seek a general election. This can only be achieved through tabling a vote of no confidence, as required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The DUP has indicated that they will support the government in any no confidence vote, as a Corbyn government generally holds little attraction for them. However, unprecedented events seem to be happening with alarming regularity at the moment.

A government defeat would trigger a 14 day period, within which the political parties could seek to negotiate and determine who could form a government that enjoys the confidence of the House of Commons. If no viable government emerges within those 14 days, a general election is held. Given that Labour is over 60 seats short of a majority, it is difficult to see how Labour could form a government. In any event, Labour fancy their chances at a general election, and Corbyn prefers it ahead of a second referendum.

The attention then focuses on Theresa May. Having lost the ‘meaningful vote’, and losing a vote of no confidence, how does she respond? Some have suggested that she would be required to resign immediately; others (including myself) suggest, that if there is no viable alternative government, then May should remain in office. Clearly, May’s position as party leader would also be in doubt. Conservative opposition to the deal could easily spill over into triggering a confidence vote in May as party leader and succeed, so triggering a leadership contest. It would be difficult, but perhaps not impossible, to conclude this within, or around, the 14 day period before an election. Theresa May became party leader (and Prime Minister) 18 days after Cameron announced his resignation.

However, a desperate Prime Minister may have one option left.

The no confidence vote procedure is one way to hold an early general election. Usually, this is presented as separate from the alternative method, which is for 66% of MPs vote in favour of the motion, ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’. This second method was used by May to hold the 2017 election.

On the terms of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, these two methods do not have to be entirely separate. On the face of the Act, it seems entirely possible for 66% of MPs to vote for a general election during the 14 day period triggered by the no confidence procedure. In principle, if all possibilities have been exhausted and no new, viable government has emerged, then it seems rather futile to wait out the 14 days to hold the general election. It would be difficult for the opposition to vote against an immediate general election after having won a no confidence vote against the government.

If May loses a vote of no confidence, then it could be to her advantage to attempt to hold a general election more immediately, dispensing with as much of the 14 day period as possible. It would stop any speculation regarding her position as Prime Minister, as this would become a matter for the electorate; and it could prevent a leadership contest in her party, as it is inconceivable to go into an election campaign believing that, ‘no leader is better than a bad leader’ (to coin a phrase). Conservative MPs, who would not vote for a general election of their own volition, may consider that if a general election is likely, that there is similarly little lost in voting to dispense with the 14 day period, and would, at least, enter the election in government, which may prove beneficial if the election results in another hung parliament. 

Politically, instead of passively allowing the election to happen, May could be presented as wresting the initiative back from Corbyn, taking her case to the country, making the election on her deal. It would not be a ‘second referendum’, but would be a rather traditional type of election. AV Dicey (who was one of the first to propose the use of the referendum in the UK), said that a ‘general election is an appeal to the people, and may under peculiar circumstances be made to serve, through an awkward and imperfect manner, the purpose of a referendum’. In this vein, Dicey suggests the 1831 election carried the Great Reform Bill and that the 1868 election approved the disestablishment of the Irish church. It is safe to say that we are in peculiar circumstances.

Some indications show that the deal is gaining some popularity with the electorate, although nowhere nearly quickly enough for it to affect Tuesday’s vote. If (and, this is an enormous if), the election delivers success for May, it could clear the log-jam of the existing Parliament that seemingly lacks a majority for anything.

A general election, particularly following a truncated 14-day period, would disrupt the broader Brexit process far less than a referendum. The indications are that the EU would be willing to extend the Article 50 timetable for a ‘democratic event’. In a legal and practical sense, elections can be held relatively quickly. They require no new legislation as the rules already in place. The date of the election would be the 17th working day following the dissolution of Parliament. In theory, dissolution could take place next week. If we continue with the practice of holding elections on a Thursday, then (again in theory) an election could be held as soon as 10th January. It used to be the case that the new parliament would meet as soon as six days after the election, but the recent practice is for this to be extended to 12 days. Although there would still be a Queen’s speech and members need to be sworn in, given that the Commons is due to be in recess from the 20th December to 7th January, relatively little parliamentary time would be lost by a January election – far less time than any election held at any other time before 29th March.

The amount of parliamentary time lost by an election (or the delay a second referendum would cause) is an important factor because under European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, section 13, legislation needs to be passed which incorporates any deal into UK law before the government can ratify any withdrawal agreement with the EU. Any extension to the Article 50 period would be short, and may not need interfere with the forthcoming European Parliament elections or the creation of new Commission.

To put it mildly, for May the political risks are extreme. An election could irreversibly fracture the Conservative Party, with some candidates running on a “no deal” ticket, splitting the Brexit vote, and pave the way for a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. This might mean none of this will happen, but if pushed into this corner, Theresa May has few other options.

Rather Than Labour Deselecting MPs, will Labour MPs Deselect Labour?

 

fullsizeoutput_a1c
Photo courtesy of @PlatformTen

Earlier this week, I appeared on Nick Ferrari’s LBC Radio show to discuss the constitutional issues that surround the current state of the Labour Party and particularly what should happen if the Labour leadership pursued the “deselection” of all MPs. Deselection is when all current MPs would have to go through a selection procedure to remain the candidate for their constituency at the next general election which is due in 2020. Deselection clearly implies that some MPs (often described as the “moderates”) at odds with the leadership would not be selected to stand in 2020. Constitutionally, this is largely an internal issue for the Labour Party, if the electorate doesn’t like the candidates chosen by Labour they can vote for another party. I floated the possibility that MPs faced with the threat of deselection may choose to leave Labour, jumping ship before being pushed and finding another political party. The audio of the segment is below…

 

 

The whole question raises some more immediate issues that could lead to a breakaway party from Labour. If Corbyn implements a full “deselection” process, then given the radical change in the membership of the Labour Party since Corbyn’s election, many moderate MPs may have little chance of being chosen to stand in 2020. This is increasingly likely as 2020 approaches as new members continue to join, and moderate members opt to leave. Any MP likely to lose their seat, already at odds with the current leadership, will have little incentive to heed Corbyn’s calls for party unity.

It’s arguable that instead of unity, the reverse could be more likely and deselection could cause the Labour Party to split. Logically, moderate MPs denied the chance of retaining their seat in 2020, should have no interest in continuing to prop up (however lukewarmly) a leader with which they so fundamentally disagree. It would be in their interest to create a new party and provide themselves with the opportunity to stand in 2020. If moderate MPs realise that they cannot stand as a Labour candidate in 2020, then there is little to lose by leaving and forming a new party.

The gains are all the greater when you consider that the circumstances are as conducive to creating a new party as they are ever likely to be. Labour continue to perform ever more poorly in the polls, but also Corbyn is an unusual party leader in British politics because there is such a disconnect between himself and his parliamentary party. As discussed in the past few months, this could be exploited by a new group of moderate Labour MPs (the core being the deselected MPs), that could attract sufficient support to be designated as the official opposition by the Speaker, with the leader becoming the Leader of the Opposition. This would deny Corbyn would the oxygen of publicity that he currently enjoys, as the new moderate grouping would be part of the warp and weave of daily politics (i.e. membership of parliamentary committees, frequent media appearances on the usual outlets). All of this is a massive difference to the “gang of four” who left Labour to create the SDP in 1981, which despite including senior MPs and ex-cabinet ministers such as Roy Jenkins, never quite had this status.

From this platform, a new party would have a reasonable chance at the next General Election of winning seats. There would be opportunities to work with other parties such as the Liberal Democrats, possibly including an electoral pact for their mutual benefit. Of course, all of this is risky, but if deselection means that existing Labour MPs cannot stand in 2020, having a chance of contesting and winning a seat is better than none at all. I may be underplaying the emotional attachment that MPs have to their Party, but if they have such a detachment from the membership and the leadership those emotional ties must inevitably be weakened. Fundamentally, deselection will require affected MPs to resolve a clash between their principled commitment to left-of-centre politics and their (often lifetime) membership of the Labour Party.

Corbyn will need to think extremely carefully about deselection because if he proceeds, he may discover that many MPs will ‘deselect’ them and the Labour Party is reduced to a mere protest group with a rump of MPs.

PMQs: The Challenge for Corbyn

Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 12noon sees the return of a fixture that some hate to miss. It’s Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). While to some this may appear to be people just shouting at each other, PMQs serves a useful purpose. It is one of the ways in which the Prime Minister and the government are accountable to the House of Commons. For this to happen, the Leader of the Opposition must be capable of effectively challenging the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn’s performances so far indicate that he appears incapable of performing this task. Failure to place the Prime Minister on the spot means that the government is under less scrutiny, and accountability and Parliament suffers. If the Opposition, in general, does not fulfil their role to scrutinise the government, then the government is likely to make mistakes. With Brexit, this becomes even more important.

There is no way to wrap this up; Corbyn’s performances at PMQs have been shockingly bad. David Cameron visibly found PMQs a far more comfortable experience when facing Corbyn compared to Ed Milliband, often not even needing to refer to his briefing notes. Corbyn’s questions are often little more than a ramble (Isabel Hardman at The Spectator picked up on this here), and his frequent failure to follow up on the Prime Minister’s answer makes PMQs considerably easier for them. Corbyn’s approach of asking questions sent to him can neutralise PMQs to some extent, but he needs to follow up on the answers.

Using PMQs to their full extent requires research, time and preparation. The indications from the VICE documentary on Corbyn are that his preparations are far from extensive, and it shows. Perhaps Corbyn has chosen not to take PMQs seriously, viewing it merely being pointless theatrics. But this highlights Corbyn’s fundamental constitutional misunderstanding. Despite all the rallies held up and down the country and for all the train floors he sits on, Corbyn needs to show that he is the leader of a viable alternative government. One key element of this is to perform well in the Commons, especially at PMQs, which is Corbyn’s weekly opportunity to set the terms of the debate rather than just responding to what the government has decided. Corbyn’s performances in Parliament (as well as his general performance as leader) have led to what support he had amongst the parliamentary party diminishing and ultimately to the current leadership election. Had Corbyn been consistently performing better at PMQs, more Labour MPs would have given him more of chance. Both Blair and Cameron were excellent performers at PMQs, and they both won elections. A series of poor performances leads MPs to question whether their leader is up to the job. Although she performed strongly at her first PMQs in July, there is a warning to Theresa May here as well.

Although little may change directly as a result of PMQs, in the background, PMQs matters to both party leaders. It remains their most visible shop window to the voters week in, week out. With Theresa May now answering the questions, there is a chance for Corbyn to reset how he approaches PMQs. Although in July, there was every indication that May intends to take advantage of every possible weakness Corbyn has, piling the pressure on Corbyn. Even if Corbyn does win the leadership election, he needs to take PMQs seriously as he cannot function as Leader of the Opposition without the support of his MPs in Parliament. In short, Corbyn needs to give them something to support. Otherwise, Labour’s leadership question will still lack a conclusive answer.

UPDATE
It was arguably one of Corbyn’s best PMQs (although that may not be saying too much). But he did focus on one issue, which is more powerful. Housing is a significant concern and plays well with his supporters. His questions need to be more precise, and Theresa May could handle them with ease. 

The problem is whether this was the right issue to go on as such little progress over Brexit has been made. Here it was left to the leader of the SNP, Angus Robertson to challenge May over the key issue of the day, directly asking whether May wants to retain access to the Single Market. This is a consistent theme of PMQs as Robertson routinely is more challenging with his two questions than Corbyn ever is with his six.