Thanks to a weekend of nationwide jubilation over Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle, politics has – for once – taken a backseat. However, there’s one story in the Sunday Times that is still likely to cause mild alarm: ‘Tory MPs prepare for snap autumn election as Theresa May hit by Brexit deadlock’.
The paper reports that Conservative MPs have privately started to get ready for a snap general election. It’s not that they fear Theresa May is about to go on a walking holiday and get over-excited about some better-than-expected polling. Instead, these Tories fear that the Brexit deadlock will soon become ‘insurmountable for the prime minister’. This isn’t the first time this month such a point has been made. As George Trefgarne said on Coffee House last week, events could follow as such:
‘A failure to win Commons votes on numerous aspects of Brexit, notably the Customs Union; a vote of no confidence; Theresa May stepping down or being challenged; a new leader feeling the need for a refreshed mandate; the press and social media howling for this or that; all culminating in a butterflies-in-tummy drive to the Palace.’
It’s true that the current Brexit deadlock is a considerable problem to the government. Even if May does manage to find a compromise that the likes of Nicky Morgan and Jacob Rees-Mogg can live with, there’s no guarantee that Brussels will accept it. When such compromises start to be made on trade, one side will be left disappointed and they will prove hard to control. This aspect of the negotiations was always going to be the most difficult. In November last year, Morgan Stanley told clients that there was a two-thirds likelihood of snap elections in the second half of 2018 once the Conservative Party starts to fracture over Brexit.
What’s more, I’ve noticed that it’s a topic that increasingly comes up in Westminster conversations these days. But it’s also a conversation that – with Conservatives at least – results in an almost universal negative reaction. MPs all seem to agree it would be a bad idea, tired SpAds joke that they might sit the next one out under purdah and journalists look at their holiday calendar in horror.
Although the local elections weren’t the disaster many Tories had feared they would be, the Conservatives remain unsure that they would win many more seats were there a general election tomorrow. They know things could quickly turn against them – and have also learnt the hard way that the voters dislike unnecessary elections. This is why for all the difficulties with Britain’s post-Brexit customs union, an election this year still remains unlikely.
In order to bring one about under the Fixed-term Parliament Act, either a motion must be passed in the Commons to dissolve parliament in which the ‘number of members who vote in favour’ is ‘greater than two-thirds of the number of seats in the House’ or MPs back a vote of no confidence in the sitting government and 14 days pass without any administration gaining – or regaining – that confidence.
The lack of enthusiasm for an early election and the provisions in place to make it difficult to bring about one means that it is scenario it’s hard for the Tories to just stumble into. It’s hard to see who it would benefit. No matter how soft May’s Brexit plans, Eurosceptics worry an election poses more of a risk to Brexit than an indecisive PM. Remain Tories think they can rebel without it coming to this. For all the noise, a large chunk of the party falls into the ‘stop banging on about Europe’ tribe – they are unlikely to let any emotional colleagues bring down the government without a fight. No 10 meanwhile believe that the threat of government collapse could be enough to get unruly MPs to play ball.
Of course, this could all be a grave misjudgment and the Tories end up with no choice but to go to the polls. However, given the lack of appetite for one, the vast majority of Conservatives will be doing anything they can to prevent this scenario – no matter how difficult the Brexit negotiations get.