Is Boris Johnson planning an election?

It might not be welcome news for voters, let alone MPs, but the UK could be facing its third general election in little more than four years. With many pundits predict an autumn poll, here is a list of reasons why that might happen. And one why it might not.

Advisers’ leave cancelled

No 10 feels very much on an election footing. No sooner are they finding their feet in their new departments than ministerial special advisers, or “spads”, non-civil service appointees whose careers are tied to those of their minister, have suddenly been told to cancel any holiday plans. An email from Boris Johnson’s own senior adviser, Edward Lister, warned spads that, barring exceptions and pre-booked cases, no holiday time would be allowed before the Brexit day of 31 October.

A stream of policy announcements

He might have been prime minister for little more than a fortnight, but Johnson and his team have already pushed out a series of election-friendly policy announcements, from more police to a cash boost for schools and the NHS. On Thursday, Johnson even used an election-style Facebook address to the nation from his No 10 office to unveil a plan to ease immigration rules for scientists post-Brexit.

A one-year funding settlement

Adding to the sense of clearing the decks before an election, it has emerged that the government is to ditch the planned three-year spending review and rush through a one-year version next month, setting out how the spending pledges will be paid for. This would head off accusations that Johnson’s promises were un-costed.

MPs are on alert

For most MPs, recess in August is either about catching up on constituency casework or spending a couple of weeks on the beach. But many are instead busy preparing election machinery, even trailing the streets to knock on doors and talk to constituents. Others are plotting ways to undermine Johnson’s apparent ambition to remove the UK from the EU without a deal on 31 October.

It could be the only way to stop a no-deal Brexit

While there are grandiose plans being made by some MPs to seek to block a no-deal departure, for example by amending the motion needed for parliament to break for party conferences in mid-September, or by amassing some government of national unity, more likely would seem to be a Labour-led vote of no confidence against the government. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), if no new administration can be formed within 14 days of such a vote being successful, an election would happen – though perhaps falling after Brexit day.

The Commons arithmetic is against Johnson

After the Conservatives lost the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection to the Liberal Democrats at the start of the month, the government’s working majority fell to just one. With rumours swirling that several disaffected Tory moderates could be on the verge of quitting, even this could evaporate by autumn. And even if there was no vote of no confidence, leading a minority government is hugely difficult and Johnson could be tempted to seek a more secure mandate.

Timeline

Countdown to an election?

3 September 2019

The date on which the Commons is likely to return from summer recess. It is the first date that MPs could hold a vote of no confidence in the new prime minister. However, rebel MPs would need to be confident they could form an alternative government, as many wish to avoid triggering an election.

12 September 2019

Mps would be due to go on conference recess – but could continue to sit if a no-confidence vote had been lost.

17 September 2019

Assuming the government has lost a confidence vote, this would be the deadline for Labour or any unity government to win a confidence vote. If not achieved, Boris Johnson would call an election. Parliament could then be prorogued.

22 September 2019 –
2 October 2019

The Labour and Conservative party conferences are due to be held on consecutive weeks.

27 September 2019

Parliament would be dissolved if an election were to be held on 1 November. 

17 October 2019 –
18 October 2019

EU leaders meet for the final European council summit before the UK’s extension is due to expire. Rebel Tories and remainers may choose to call a no-confidence vote if an extension is not offered as a way of preventing no deal.

31 October 2019

The six-month article 50 extension will expire.

1 November 2019

The UK could hold a general election.

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Why might it not happen?

The arithmetic for a vote of no confidence looks incredibly tight – as well as needing virtually all opposition MPs to back the measure, it would require several Tories to vote to bring down their own government, which is a big ask. If it looks shaky, Labour might delay and try other methods to stop no deal. Johnson himself could call an election under the FTPA if two-thirds of MPs support the move. But it would be a big risk – an election amid the uncertain chaos of no deal, banking on the hope that the core pro-Brexit vote would all go to the Conservatives while the remain-minded supporters would fragment. Theresa May tried a similar tactic in 2017, and we all know how that ended.

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