Brexit Twists Point to Election. Here’s How It Would Work

(Bloomberg) -- The next twist in the three-year fight over Brexit could be an early general election. For Prime Minister Boris Johnson -- whose Conservative Party lacks a majority in the House of Commons -- rolling the dice might give him the break he needs to complete Britain’s often-delayed divorce from the European Union. But it’s not in his power to call an election, and the opposition Labour Party, whose consent he likely needs, won’t give it to him, yet.

1. Why an election?

The EU looks set to extend the Oct. 31 deadline for Britain’s departure. A delay would remove the threat of a so-called no-deal Brexit for the time being and allow time to hold a poll. Johnson, an accomplished campaigner, is trying to cast himself as the classical hero determined to implement the will of the people who voted to leave the EU. Polls currently put his Conservative Party ahead. Parliament voted to block his plan to rush his Brexit deal with the EU into law on the night of Oct. 22. He could still try to push it through Parliament -- where he lacks a majority for the battles ahead -- and then seek an election. But he has signaled that he might put efforts to pass the bill on hold in favor of triggering an election right away.

2. How can an early election be triggered?

The law doesn’t give the prime minister the power to call a ballot, and the next one isn’t due until 2022. Under existing law, there are two routes around that:

  • A simple motion for an early election would need the approval of two-thirds of members of Parliament -- or 434. Johnson could bring this motion anytime, though he’s already failed twice.
  • The second route is a vote of no-confidence, triggered either by an opposition party or even by Johnson himself. Such votes determine whether the current government still commands support from a majority of lawmakers. Here, the threshold is lower -- just a simple majority of the 650 MPs -- but a successful vote is just the start of a longer process.

3. What happens if Johnson loses a no-confidence vote?

The law governing this process -- the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 -- has never been fully tested. What’s clear is that party leaders would have 14 days to form a new government that can win a confidence vote with a simple majority. Johnson’s Conservatives, as the party with the most seats, would have the first chance, but the Labour Party could also try, perhaps by courting smaller parties that back a rerun of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Or in the current extraordinary circumstances, some sort of national unity government that backs a milder variety of Brexit might be formed. If no government can win a vote after 14 days, Parliament is said to be dissolved and a general election is scheduled. Typically 25 working days are allowed for a campaign.

4. Does the Labour Party want an election?

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose socialist agenda roils financial markets, has said he doesn’t want an election until the threat of a no-deal Brexit, with no agreement in place with the EU, is removed. That threat has now greatly receded. For Corbyn, an election before Brexit has been resolved would allow him to pounce on Johnson’s failure to deliver his signature policy and to capitalize on tactical voting from “remain-leaning” voters. He still trails Johnson in the polls, so he is under pressure from within his own party to wait for the government’s Brexit woes to worsen further. But if Corbyn leaves it too late, there’s a chance Johnson could deliver Brexit and head off the threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, leaving the prime minister in a much stronger position.

5. Does the Conservative Party want an election?

Johnson can now go to the country with a narrative that he has been frustrated by the judiciary and anti-Brexit “remainers” in Parliament who have thwarted his efforts to, in his words, get Brexit done. But the polls are notoriously fickle and, as long as Brexit is unresolved, the Brexit Party could drain away support from hardline “leave” supporters. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, called the last election in June 2017, only to lose her majority. If Johnson lost, he would become the shortest-serving prime minister in British history.

6. Are the parties gearing up?

Absolutely. Johnson has pledged billions of pounds for education, social services and transportation all summer in a sign his party is currying favor with voters. There was cash for schools, a promise of 20,000 extra police officers and 1.8 billion pounds ($2.2 billion) for the National Health Service. It would be the third general election since May 2015.

The Reference Shelf

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