Speculation that Theresa May will call a snap general election reached fever pitch over the weekend, with bookies slashing the odds to 5/1 for a snap election in early May, and just 2/1 that an election is called before the end of the year.

Despite this, a Number 10 spokesperson has maintained that May will not call a snap general election. May believes that “politics is not a game” and that to do so would create added uncertainty at a time when the country needs stability. However, with the possible benefits of going to the polls stacking up, May wouldn’t be the first Prime Minister to abruptly change her tune on the timing of an election.

So why should the Prime Minister seek an early general election? Firstly, timing. Now is the ideal time to make this move, as the general election would fall in either May or June: after she has triggered Article 50 but before Brexit negotiations get under way. If she waits too long, any election would eat into parliamentary time required to pass the Great Repeal Bill and other Brexit bills, and would detract from negotiations. It’s pretty much a case of ‘now or never’.

Secondly, numbers. With a working majority of 17, she faces some difficult moments ahead. While the Article 50 Bill passed with relative ease, the Institute for Government has just published a report which concludes there could be up to 15 Brexit Bills on substantive policy areas such as immigration, customs and agriculture. May cannot necessarily expect such an easy time from her backbenchers on these. Additionally, May’s coming under fire over her domestic agenda. Tory backbenchers piled on the pressure until the Government U-turned on measures announced in the Budget to increase National Insurance for the self-employed, and more rebellions are almost certainly to come, starting with that led by former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan over May’s flagship grammar school policy.

An ICM survey for the Guardian, published yesterday, put the Conservatives on 45% – up one point from a similar poll two weeks ago, and ahead of Labour on 26%, Ukip on 10% and Lib Dems on 9%. Even though the poll was taken after Chancellor Philip Hammond’s U-turn on the Budget, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were rated the best team to manage the economy, on 44% compared to Labour’s 11%.  Who knows if this will remain the case in 2020, after the UK has successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated its way out of the EU. The temptation to secure an increased majority now – while potentially slashing Labour’s seat tally – may be overwhelming.

So if Theresa May does bow to the will of many within her party, how would she go about calling an early general election? The Fixed Term Parliaments Act, introduced so that elections are only held on a regular basis once every five years, provides two methods for this:

         1). If the House passes the motion “that there shall be an early general election”. This                               would need the backing of two thirds of MPs, including vacant seats, which means                               434 MPs.

         2). If the House passes the motion “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s                           Government” and if, after 14 days, a new or reconstituted Government has not achieved a                     motion of confidence from the House. This motion would need a simple majority.

There are also two methods that would circumvent the Fixed Term Parliaments Act altogether:

         3). Repeal the 2011 Act. This would have to be done by the introduction and completion of a new               Bill, which would have to replace the existing legislation with a new process to govern                           future elections. It would not automatically restore the status quo ante – i.e. it is not clear if                   prerogative power can be restored.

         4). A one clause Bill which bypasses the Fixed Term Parliaments Act for the next election. For                   example, ‘Notwithstanding the provisions in the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the next                             General Election shall be on [such and such a date].

My own view is that while options 3 or 4 give Theresa May more flexibility, as she would be able to set out the interval between the dissolution of Parliament and polling day, they remain ultimately unattractive due to the need to pass primary legislation – which would be subject to delays – and the fact that they would both undermine the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, either by removing it completely or rendering it almost meaningless.

Options 1 and 2 are however both possible, but leave the timing for a 4 May election – as speculated in the media – very tight under option 1 and impossible under option 2.

Section 3 of the 2011 Act provided for a 17-working day election timetable, not including the day of dissolution. However, that was extended to 25 working days by section 14 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. Therefore, if Theresa May calls an early general election through either route 1 or 2, then Parliament must be dissolved at the beginning of the 25th working day before polling day. This would therefore mean passing a motion for an early general election (option 1) and dissolving Parliament by Monday 27 March, which seems highly unlikely as would be before May has triggered Article 50 on Wednesday 29 March.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the Government will need to clear up remaining legislation it is committed to. Below are the Bills announced in the Queen’s speech, with those in their final stages highlighted in yellow. It is conceivable (although challenging) that the Government could pass these Bills before the end of March then pursue either option 1 or 2 to dissolve Parliament before Easter recess, which begins on 31 March.

Bill Next stage Date expected
Digital Economy Bill Lords Report stage 22/03/2017
Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill Commons Committee stage Concludes 23/03/2017 (carry over motion passed)
Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill Ping Pong Date to be announced
Local Government Finance Bill Commons Report stage Date to be announced
Better Markets Bill Delayed n/a
Bus Services Bill [HL] Commons Report Stage 27/03/2017
NHS Overseas Visitors Charging Bill Delayed n/a
Pension Schemes Bill [HL] Commons Report stage 22/03/2017
Children and Social Work Bill [HL] Ping Pong Date to be announced
Higher Education and Research Bill Lords Third Reading 22/03/2017
Prisons and Courts Reform Bill Commons Committee stage Date to be announced (carry over motion passed)
National Citizens Service Bill Ping Pong Date to be announced
Savings (Government contributions) Bill Received Royal Assent n/a
Small Charitable Donations Bill Received Royal Assent n/a
Counter-extremism and Safeguarding Bill Delayed/Grounded n/a
Criminal Finances Bill Lords Committee stage 28/03/2017
Cultural Property Bill Received Royal Assent n/a
Wales Bill Received Royal Assent n/a
Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill [HL] Royal Assent Date to be announced

 

While a couple of days ago it seemed most likely that May would call a general election by Easter recess or not at all, the Government may now feel under increased pressure to push the Criminal Finances Bill – currently at Lords Committee stage – through, in light of news stories over the past 24 hours. City Minister Simon Kirby alluded to the importance of this Bill in Parliament yesterday in addressing issues around money laundering.  The Government may therefore wish to wait until after Easter recess (Parliament returns on 18 April) to try and push this Bill through, to avoid further accusations from Labour that it does not take money laundering seriously. As Nikki da Costa notes, the Lords will need about three more weeks to deliberate the Bill, meaning that Theresa May would have to wait until the week commencing 15 May or 22 May to seek to dissolve Parliament, leading to a general election in late June.

Not ideal, but after some more time to consider her stance, the Prime Minister may find that while politics is not a game, survival is an instinct hard to ignore.

 

 

Main image: Theresa May, by Policy Exchange licensed under CC BY 2.0