Another U.K. Election? It's Likely to Be an Accidental One

(Bloomberg) -- Could Britain be about to hold another general election?

Speculation has blown up again after The Sunday Times reported that Prime Minister Theresa May’s aides have discussed the possibility of a November vote, in which she would seek a public endorsement of a harder Brexit stance.

Another U.K. Election? It's Likely to Be an Accidental One

May’s office has described the report as “categorically untrue,” and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC it was “for the birds.”

Aside from the denial, there are several other problems, including a basic one: May doesn’t have the power to call an election on her own. Parliament has to agree.

There are two ways in law that this can happen. The one she used in 2016 was to ask lawmakers to vote for an early election -- a vote that requires two-thirds of them to back it. The opposition Labour Party certainly would, but her own Tories might not, especially if they thought she was trying to maneuver around them.

The other route is for the prime minister to lose a confidence vote. May doesn’t have a majority and is trying to do something that bitterly divides her party, so this is the way identified by many of those who think there could be an election.

But at last year’s election, May had prepared a third route: A short bill that set the date of the election that would only require a simple majority. The text of that bill, less than 100 words, is published in “The British General Election of 2017” by Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh, out this month.

May’s aides have floated the idea of an election, largely as a threat to rebellious Conservative lawmakers: If her plans were defeated, the government would fall, and an election would follow.

That points to the next problem with the idea of May going to the country: No one is sure that she’d win. The 2017 campaign revealed her flaws and the strengths of opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The people around Corbyn are very keen for an election, which they are sure would propel them into government.

Indeed, talking about an election could backfire. Few Tories want May to lead them into a vote again, and if they think she’s serious, they might move quickly to replace her.

Which leaves the likeliest route: a confidence vote after May adopts a strategy that one wing of her party decides is so unacceptable they need to bring the government down to stop her.

“There could be another election,” said Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “But if there is, it’s more likely to be because May’s plans have gone wrong than because she’s set out to have one.”

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