Playing it long. When will this Parliament end?

Playing it long. When will this Parliament end?

A look at when the next election might take place

Clearly we haven’t had enough elections recently.  In the last three years we’ve been treated to the Scottish independence referendum, the May 2015 general election, the EU referendum and the June 2017 general election.  I’d have thought that would be enough for even the most assiduous voter, but YouGov have found that by 43:38 the public want to have another general election.  You have to applaud their civic-mindedness.  Either that, or they fancy another betting opportunity.

Everyone seems to be agreed that even if Theresa May cobbles together a deal with the DUP, the whole thing will be highly unstable and liable to come crashing down at any minute.  The only question that most people are considering is whether the government will collapse immediately or later this autumn or whether it will stagger on into next year.  Memories of the mid-1990s are strong.  Others recall that the February 1974 election resulted in a repeat within 8 months.

As is so often the case, everyone is probably wrong.  The centripetal forces holding the incoming government together are stronger than are generally understood.  How so?  Well, there are five relevant considerations:

1) Unlike February 1974 which resulted in an extremely well-hung Parliament, the Conservatives have very nearly got an overall majority.  For now they seem to have secured the support of the DUP.  As the numbers currently stack up, however, they only need to secure the abstention of any one of the DUP, the SNP and the Lib Dems.  If the DUP start playing silly buggers, the Conservatives have options.

2) Following on from this, in order for there to be an early election, there needs to be a majority in the House of Commons that is willing to vote as necessary to produce one.  Given recent experience, the Conservatives are going to be very wary indeed of seeking an early election even if they rack up astonishing leads in the opinion polls.  More likely, if they are the party of government they can expect to fall behind Labour in the polls (they may already have done so) and to stay behind for long periods of this Parliament given their very challenging task of negotiating Brexit.  Turkeys don’t normally vote for Christmas.  The SNP also seem to be staring down the barrel of a gun.  Unless their poll ratings recover markedly, they look set to lose many more seats at the next election simply because those voters who wish to defend the union now have a clear route map which party to back in most constituencies.  So there looks likely to be an enduring majority opposed to an early election, with or without the DUP.

3) Conservative discipline is likely to hold far better than in the mid-1990s.  This is less out of respect for the Conservative leadership and more out of genuine loathing of the Labour leadership and belief that they must be shut out of government.  Brexit compromises will be internally rationalised on the basis that Brexit is happening, albeit in imperfect form.

4) Defections, uncommon in any event, are unlikely.  The political distance between the parties is the greatest that it has been since the early 1980s.

5) By-elections are much rarer than in the past.  In the 2015-17 Parliament, there were just ten.  Only three of these followed the death of an MP and all three were Labour MPs.  In the 2010-15 Parliament, there were 21 by-elections and six of these followed the death of an MP and again all six were Labour MPs.  With fewer Conservative MPs continuing in harness into their 70s than in the past, we should not expect many enforced by-elections.  We can expect the Conservative hierarchy to take great pains to avoid optional by-elections if they possibly can.  Even if the government were to lose every by-election that it defended, we might see an attrition rate for them of just 1 or 2 MPs a year.  That could easily see the Conservatives to the end of the term.

So I expect to see the new Parliament be much more enduring than is commonly thought.  I am not alone in this belief.  Baron Nicholas Macpherson, who was Permanent Secretary to the Treasury until last year, has tweeted that he expects this Parliament to go the distance.  Betfair has two different markets (“Will there be a second election this year?” and “Year of next UK Election”?) and you can lay 2017 at less than 3/1 on either of these markets.  If – as now seems to be the case – the Conservatives can reach a workable deal with the DUP, these odds are way out of kilter with reality.   I’m on.

Alastair Meeks

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