Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s staff talk about an imminent general election as though it were a fact, and a Conservative politician accidentally published a draft email about his “GE2019 team.” But amid growing expectations that the next chapter in the UK’s political crisis will see the country go to the polls, it’s still not clear how it will happen.
The argument for an election is clear. Johnson has a governing majority in parliament of just one seat, meaning he doesn’t have the votes to pass any controversial legislation. It’s also far from clear there’s majority for any kind of Brexit deal, while MPs are plotting to block his “do or die” plan to take Britain out of the EU on October 31, without a deal if necessary.
To underline the threat, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond warned Johnson he’ll work in parliament with other ex-ministers to try to stop a no-deal Brexit, which he called a “betrayal” of the 2016 referendum result.
“I’m very confident that Parliament has the means to make its voice heard,” Hammond told BBC Radio.
Calling an election would stop those plots — MPs would cease to be MPs and have to fight again for their seats — and could potentially deliver Johnson a majority. The Conservatives see the prime minister as an electoral asset, a politician who’s also a celebrity. If he could argue the election had been forced on him and fight a “Parliament versus the People” campaign, the Tories hope Johnson could sweep up voters frustrated that Brexit hasn’t been delivered.
Yet the days when prime ministers could go to the monarch and request an election are over. Under 2011 legislation, a national ballot can be called only if two-thirds of MPs opt for one — or if the government loses a confidence vote. Unless either of those happen, under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act the next election isn’t scheduled until 2022.
If Johnson wants an election “to break the parliamentary deadlock, or get a mandate for a no-deal Brexit, then he will not only need the support of all of his party but also a sizable chunk of opposition MPs,” said Maddy Thimont Jack at the Institute for Government. “A lot depends on when he calls it.”
Opponents of a no-deal Brexit fear Johnson might go for a date just after October 31, allowing Britain to leave the EU without a deal during the election campaign when there would be no parliament to stop it.