David Scullion is the Deputy Editor of BrexitCentral. George Jackson is a researcher at the European Foundation.
Government Whips have been telling MPs that voting down the draft Withdrawal Agreement will lead to the collapse of the Government, a general election – and the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn walking into Number 10. But the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) means that the next election is scheduled for 5 May 2022. Voting down the Withdrawal Agreement won’t change that date.
The FTPA stipulates two ways a general election can be held early.
First, two thirds of all MPs – including the ones that don’t take their seats, meaning Sinn Féin in this instance – must vote for the motion: ‘there shall be an early parliamentary general election.’ Two thirds of all MPs means that 434 MPs would be needed to vote down the government. The combined opposition, including the DUP, is 334. So unless 100 Conservative MPs are feeling exceptionally brave, Irish republicans flock into London to swear allegiance to the Queen and pigs begin sprouting wings, there won’t be an early general election.
Second, a general election could be triggered by a simple majority if the Commons votes for an explicitly worded confidence motion. But were this to happen, there would be a 14-day window during which the Government could regain the confidence of Conservative MPs by, say, offering concessions, or by by ousting Theresa May. Two weeks is a long time in politics.
And that’s it. Since the FTPA abolishes the power of the Prime Minister to request a dissolution under the royal prerogative, any conventions apply only to the Government, not to Parliament. This means that votes conventionally seen as matters of confidence, such as the Budget or the Queen’s Speech, would not lead to the dissolution of Parliament were the Government not to win them.
But could Downing Street not claim that the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement is a matter of confidence (as John Major did in the Maastricht debate)? Again, since an explicit motion of no confidence would not have been passed, there would be no early general election. The Government’s best bluff available would be to table a confidence motion straight after losing a Brexit vote in the hope of linking the two. But were this to happen, and it lost the first vote and win the second, the manoeuvre would have no constitutional effect.
At present, it looks as though the Commons will reject the Prime Minister’s proposed deal with the EU. If May then resigns, there will then be a Conservative leadership election. After a new Prime Minister is in place, the deal could be renegotiated or the country would leave the EU on the 29th of March without a deal. There is no majority for a second referendum in the Commons, despite the support of some Conservative MPs. Labour are far from united on the subject, and pressure from campaign group Momentum has made Labour ‘moderates’ nervous of supporting a Conservative government.
Similarly, the European Union has made it clear that Labour’s proposals for a softer Brexit – full Customs Union and Single Market membership without freedom of movement (for which there may be a hypothetical Commons majority) – is not on the table, since this would amount to unacceptable ‘cherry picking’ of aspects of EU membership.
Conservative MPs should therefore be confident that voting down the Withdrawal Agreement will neither trigger a general election nor see Jeremy Corbyn take power. It is a baseless claim spread in the hope of frightening MPs into backing May’s flawed deal. Vote with your conscience, Tory MPs, because the FTPA has got your back.