Don’t write off an Autumn Election

Don’t write off an Autumn Election

MS shot Big Ben

It’s still a possibility – by accident or design

Lame ducks.  Britain’s not supposed to have them given that there are no term limits for ministers and for that matter, no formal terms at all as far as governments are concerned: they just carry on until they resign or are ousted.  Even so, final sessions of a parliament has rarely been particularly fruitful times, partly because the government’s main priorities will have already been dealt with but mainly because the PM used to be able to call an election at any time and you don’t want to have to choose between losing important legislation and losing a propitious election window.

That’s all supposed to be a thing of the past now the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) is in place.  The next election should be on 7 May 2015 and not a day earlier.  In reality, that legislation is more an inconvenience than a real barrier.

As TSE noted yesterday, with an election looming and little to keep them together, the parties in government are developing an increasingly fractious relationship, something that may be to both sides’ benefit – but only if they can keep it within reason.

It is not difficult to envisage some issue pitting the two parties on opposite sides of a divide, and where the split cannot be smoothed over but is based on deeply-held principle.  This week alone, we have seen Theresa May and Nick Clegg involved in a spat over surveillance powers, and then the Tories pledging to repeal the HRA.  If that latter case came to parliament, there’s little doubt that the Lib Dems would join with Labour to try to vote it down, and may well succeed with minor party backing.  Similarly, when EV4EL comes to be voted on, that may go the same way.

Earlier in the parliament, that might not have mattered too much; at this point, the losing side may well feel not only bitter but wonder why they’re still in government with what they’ll perceive as an unreliable partner with incompatible views.  Given that their core support is likely to back their party’s stance, it’s not a radical jump from there to seeing a parting of the ways.

If that did happen, an election would almost certainly result for the same reason that the Lib-Con coalition formed in the first place: there’s no other game in town.  The Lib Dems could not form an alternative government with Labour unless there was stable minor party backing too – something they’d be unlikely to receive.  On the other hand, if the Lib Dems left the government, Cameron would be better immediately resigning his government than waiting to be brought down at a time of Miliband’s choosing, safe in the knowledge that no-one else could put a government together.  For that matter, if the Tories were to lose key votes on, say the HRA or EV4EL, it’s not inconceivable that it could be the Blues withdrawing from the government.

The FTPA does have two loopholes for an early election.  One is if a government is No Confidenced and no new government can be formed that commands the confidence of the Commons within two weeks; the other is if two-thirds of the House votes for an early dissolution.  By what looks like a drafting omission, the ‘no government’ provision doesn’t apply if a previous government resigns, unless a No Confidence motion is also passed.  That seems like a clumsy mechanism to me for any party seeking an election.  A better option would be to table a motion for a dissolution.  Could Labour seriously vote against an election at this stage in the parliament and with a lead in the polls?  It would be difficult to justify to the public (note, the provision requires two-thirds of all members – i.e. 434 or more MPs – to vote in favour, not just two-thirds of those voting).

Having said all this, I don’t expect it to happen.  In fact, I’d make the odds of an election this year about 8/1.  There may not be the kind of vote I’ve speculated on.  If there is, the government may patch up any divisions, particularly if the implied election date would be heading into December.  Even so, with the forces binding the government together becoming progressively weaker, it’s not an eventuality we should ignore.

David Herdson

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