In June Paul Goodman, our editor, argued that the UK needed a general election as well as a new Prime Minister, in order to refresh the Government’s mandate in light of the seismic Brexit vote.
He argues that the Prime Minister faces an open goal, in electoral terms, and an enhanced majority would both help her deliver an ambitious Government agenda and provide some much-needed shock therapy to a Labour Party that currently looks set to re-elect Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.
Other commentators, such as John Rentoul, are also sceptical of the Government’s “no early election” chatter – May will be aware of the Gordon Brown lesson that once you’ve hinted that an early election might happen, you pretty much have to hold one.
But Rentoul is sceptical of the mechanism Tim has advanced, and there is some debate about the best way that the Prime Minister might circumnavigate the FTPA. Below are four possibilities, in descending order of realism. We leave it to the reader to decide whether, regardless of the merits of an early election, it is practical to hold one.
Vote of No Confidence
Rentoul’s preferred course, and probably the one least dependent on the good graces of the Opposition.
May could engineer a vote of no confidence in the present administration, and as the Tories have a majority no alternative Government would have even a technical possibility of commanding the House.
The obvious problem with this is that it involves the Tories voting themselves out of office, which could be awkward to explain on the doorstep to the huge majority of voters who won’t be up to speed on the technical details.
However, it is the surest route to an early election available.
Two-thirds vote to dissolve the House
The FTPA does have provisions for un-fixing the term, but requires a two-thirds majority to dissolve Parliament early. This was intended to provide a cage to hold the Tories and Liberal Democrats together.
Could the Government get that many votes? They could probably corral Tory MPs with the enticing prospect of an election held prior to the boundary review, although that isn’t certain.
It also depends on what Labour do. The Opposition seem unlikely to vote for an election in which all the polls suggest they face annihilation.
On the other hand, it would also be politically difficult for Labour MPs to vote to keep the Tories in office. If Corbyn voted for an election and moderate/right-wing MPs voted to keep May in power, their position inside the party could completely collapse.
Provided the Opposition were willing to cooperate, this would be the most straightforward way forward.
Amend the Act
This is the mechanism Tim proposes: pass an amendment to the FTPA allowing for an election in, say, 2017. Yet this requires pretty much the same process as repealing the Act does, including – crucially – affirmation by the House of Lords.
One might argue that it would be astonishing for the upper house to vote down a motion for a democratic election which had passed the Commons – but it would be bold to bet so heavily against the shamelessness of opposition peers at the moment.
Rentoul certainly believes that the Lords would do all they could to delay it – and if the amendment were held up until within a month of the date it mandates an election for, it is effectively vetoed.
Repeal the Act
There is a strong case to be made that whilst a fixed-term Parliament was a political necessity during the Coalition, it is not a good addition to our constitution on a permanent basis.
Even during the one Parliament in which it was needed, we saw how it broke the UK’s organic processes of political renewal, leading to a year of stagnation as the parties sat out the gap between the natural conclusion of the Coalition’s term and it’s legally-required one.
Yet like any reform that places so high a value on tidiness the Act has plenty of support too, and any repeal effort would be controversial and time consuming. With it coming up for review in 2020 anyway, this must be the least likely route by some distance.