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I'm trying to understand why Labour and other parties do not want an election. The bill blocking the no-deal exit on the 31st of October will almost certainly pass today. That means that the no-deal option is off, at least for now.

What's the motivation for the opposition to delay the inevitable election instead of simply accepting that option right now?

91

There's a constellation of reasons:

  • Johnson lost his majority (which makes him toothless and unable to get anything done), is getting humiliated day after day, and is putting his inadequacy on display more often than not. The longer this drags on, the more damage to his credibility as a viable PM.

  • The optics of a PM calling for a vote of no confidence, with his party voting against his government and the opposition voting for it, would be bleak for Johnson. The optics of Johnson resigning and inviting the Queen to get the opposition to form a new government are no better.

  • The last thing the opposition wants is to be at the helm on Brexit Day should such a day arrive -- particularly if it's a No Deal Brexit. The opposition is widely pro-Remain outside of a few fringe sections of the Labour party. If Brexit there is, especially if it's a very soft one engineered under pressure by the current opposition, the more radical Brexiters will be out in the wild screaming Brino ("Brexit in name only"). You want the blame and the discredit firmly tacked onto the Tories and the Brexit Party. Alternatively you'd want a People's Vote to confirm the Brexit outcome.

  • There's a significant risk for Labour that Johnson will paint an election before Oct 31 as: it's Brexit or Corbyn. The latter is loathed (or at least used to be loathed) by large swaths of the country -- including by some centrists within his own party. This may very well skew the results enough that they'd end up losing (as polls appear to suggest) on the basis that some voters would rather a no deal Brexit than Corbyn at the helm.

  • By contrast, if opposition stalls until the next extension gets granted, this gets "vote for me and you'll get Brexit by the end of the month" out of the way. Its odds of electoral success are then stronger. Johnson will have been neutered by breaking his key promise to leave on Oct 31 do or die. Unless Farage gives him a break and allies with him, there will be two parties fighting for Brexiter votes, and both will lose because of the UK's FPTP system. If the opposition plays it right, or at least if its activists do, they'll be able to form a coalition government with a majority for Remain.

If you'd like most of the above points argued in more detail, The Guardian's Politics Weekly had a good podcast episode on this yesterday.

Edit: It's also emerging from private polls that the Tories might actually win the snap election on the one hand, and that it might do every bit as bad as May's snap election on the other (i.e. very tough election ahead). So file that as an additional reason. Were Johnson to win, he could then get the bill that requires him to ask for an extension repealed -- which would make no deal almost certain. Delaying the snap election removes the possibility of him doing that.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp Sep 10 at 10:34
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In addition to the tactical considerations outlined by Denis de Bernardy, there is also a fear that the bid to hold an election could be a ploy to force through a no-deal Brexit on October 31, which is the last thing the opposition wants to happen. (Conceivably Jeremy Corbyn might secretly be okay with that outcome if only it means he can become PM afterwards, but many backbenchers on both sides are genuinely alarmed by the prospect).

If the Commons votes to have a general election, it will still be up to Johnson to decide when that election would be, and the opposition would have no legal way to hold him to any promises about the date he makes before the vote. (Because of the very specific procedure set out by the Fixed-Term Paliaments Act, it is impossible to vote for "general election, but only if it is on such-and-such date").

For example, Johnson might schedule the election for November 1. The current parliament would immediately be dissolved and a new one won't meet until it has been elected. In the mean time there would be no elected body to keep tabs on his actions. It's understood that the Benn-Burt bill would have become law, and it requires the PM to seek an article 50 extension (since he would be unable to ask parliament for permission to either close a deal or crash out) -- but perhaps, somehow, he might have a trick up his sleeve to let him wiggle out of that -- for example set up a situation where it is somehow impossible to comply with either of the bill's options and he himself is the only one to decide what to do then, given that parliament itself is dissolved.

Needless to say, there are stark disagreements about how real this risk is. The legal territory of a sitting PM more or less openly ignoring parliamentary orders while parliament itself is dissolved is pretty much completely uncharted, so it's anyone's guess whether he would actually succeed if he tried that plan.

The theory also seems to presuppose that Johnson is more interested in getting a no-deal Brexit than in winning a subsequent election (and at least officially he says he's trying to negotiate an agreement which the above plan would make it impossible to implement legally). Or perhaps he might believe that if he manages to get a no-deal Brexit he would be hailed as a liberator in a November 1 election. Or it is possible that even if Johnson himself hopes to win an election, his chief strategist and grey eminence Dominic Cummings might actually care more about getting to crash out without a deal than he cares about staying in power afterwards.

The uncertainties surrounding this theory will in themselves motivate many MPs to oppose a general election being called right now.

  • 3
    Nit-pick: in the UK, elections are always on a Thursday. I think that's convention rather than law, but even so the 1st November is an unlikely date. – Peter Taylor Sep 7 at 7:24
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    The failed bid for a 15th October election date would have been a Tuesday @PeterTaylor. – Mark Booth Sep 7 at 10:37
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    @PeterTaylor, it's only convention that UK elections are on Thursday. The last General Election not on a Thursday was Tuesday 27 October 1931. – CSM Sep 7 at 12:36
  • Why are UK elections on working days anyway? Sounds like great way to disenfranchise working class voters. – M i ech Sep 10 at 7:31
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Why do opposition parties not want an election?

Short answer : Because they think they'd lose.

Long answer : Recent polling suggest Cons would win a GE held tomorrow reasonably easily on their own & if they came to an agreement with the BP that it would pretty much be a landslide.

So the opposition parties don't want an election now because they think they'd lose & potentially lose badly ending up with fewer seats than they have now.

Latest YouGov Westminster voting intention figures 2-3 September 2019

Britain Elects Poll Tracker Last updated: 01 Sep 2019

Polling for the next United Kingdom general election a Wikipedia list of polls

Conservative lead starts hitting double figures SEPTEMBER 3, 2019

UKPollingReport 20 August 2019

UKPollingReport 31 August 2019

COMRES a bunch of links to published polls from MSM

If those polls are accurate or not is another issue of course but the opposition parties are aware of them & don't want an election at this time. not when it appears they won't win & certainly not with a majority sufficient to avoid all the problems the Cons have had with such a slim majority.

I'm sure there are plenty of other reasons they & others might give, but the long & short is it all boils down to the fact that they don't think they'd win right now, anything else is just spin & 'optics' to put it in the best light possible for them. If they thought they could win nothing would stop them agreeing to one & by the same token if he thought they could win Boris (probably) wouldn't have asked for a GE.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Sep 6 at 20:12
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    The only thing wrong with this answer is that "think" should be replaced by "know" - with the possible exception of Corbyn, who shows little evidence of either knowing anything whatever, or rational thought. – alephzero Sep 6 at 20:41
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    According to the whip of the LibDems, he's pretty sure an election would be great for his party, and claims to have set the line opposing it for the good of the country. Poll analysis seems to be backing him up (the first half of that statement, that is). – T.E.D. Sep 6 at 20:53
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    @T.E.D. : Depends what he means by 'good for', if all he means is 'more seats than b4' then he's right but not in a way that makes me wrong, 'more seats' for them isn't a majority, if that had been labour on the other hand.. – Pelinore Sep 6 at 21:06
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    Voting intention does not translate directly into seats. I doubt Labour expect to win, but they could expect another hung parliament, with the Tories losing seats to the SNP and maybe the LibDems. – Peter Taylor Sep 7 at 7:32
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Other answers have noted approving an election now would give Johnson greater control over Brexit, and the Conservatives' long-term power, than would refusing it. I'd just like to mention one other issue, one concerned not with Brexit but something arguably more important than that specific policy area.

In December 2018, his predecessor faced an attempt to oust her as Leader of the Conservative Party. There was a question here about that too; and, like this one, it warranted a number of different points, my own being that she'd made one attempt too many to limit Parliament's power. Johnson is now the second Prime Minister in a row to come to power through the Conservative Party's leader-choosing rules instead of a general election, and while that doesn't guarantee he'd play fast and loose with the separation of powers at their expense, it's a prospect that's been on their mind because of Theresa May.

So, what has Johnson done since he became Prime Minister? He's made clear, to a Parliament that has repeatedly voted against a no-deal Brexit, he intends to meet the October 31 deadline whatever it takes, which almost surely means violating Parliament's will (after all, they repeatedly voted down the deal Theresa May secured with the EU, too). Now, that could just be electorate-impressing bluster; he could have meant "whatever it takes, except disregarding laws, or principles of democracy". But it's strike 1.

If Johnson did want to ignore the separation of powers, the easiest way to keep to the deadline would be to stall for time, since as far as the EU is concerned, if Parliament makes no decision the UK leave then anyway. Well, he recently acted to ensure Parliament will be powerlessly prorogued, starting from any day now until almost the deadline. He might not want to abuse his power, but if he did, isn't that basically how he'd act? His defence was that Parliament's proroguing has been postponed quite a bit already. But he could have avoided all suspicion with a November proroguing, so if you're in a suspicious mindset, that's strike 2.

OK, but maybe that was just a careless mistake of his. Surely he wouldn't threaten any Conservative MP who votes against him, which is a big no-no, before his first vote as PM? Surely he wouldn't say he'd break the law to meet the deadline? (In front of police, no less.) I think some have given up counting strikes at this point.

So let's say you're an MP who fears Johnson may care even less about the separation of powers, and rule of law, and everything else Parliament cares for, than Theresa May did. That has to be a common if not universal concern in the chamber. The last thing you'd want to do is let the Prime Minister use one of his office's most historically manipulable powers, that of having an election whenever they'd get the most seats. That would be an especially worrying thing for Johnson to manage now, since it would throw away the existing Parliament, and potentially give him both more Conservative MPs and more pro-no-deal-Brexit MPs. Guess how that prospect makes current MPs feel. As with proroguing, he couldn't have chosen something more suspicious than the October 14/15 suggestion, all while saying (unconvincingly if you're already worried about all this) that he doesn't want an election. (Well, apart from, say, November 1, but they may fear he's purposely doing the second most suspicious thing.)

Limiting Johnson's options doesn't just make tyranny less likely, it makes the not-quite-tyranny stage at hand easier to control. Could Parliament get concessions from Johnson? Well, they've already got him to say he would abide by the law after all. They're not sure enough he's telling the truth not to take some precautions (ibid.), but it's a start.

  • I do not see the link supporting Johnson saying he would abide by the law after all, mentioning anything of the sort. Wrong link or did I misunderstand? – hkBst Sep 9 at 18:06
  • @hkBst "Although the government has said it will abide by the law" is the part I was referring to. – J.G. Sep 9 at 18:11
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One most significant point is that nothing is off the table if there's a new parliament. That is because in British law no parliament can bind a later parliament.

Even if polling suggests a slight preference for Remain overall, it tends to be more concentrated in specific areas. If this election were fought purely on a Brexit basis, those areas which favour remain at the 70 percent sort of level would of course elect a pro-remain MP, but those which favour leave at a 55 percent sort of level would elect a pro leave MP. That allows for a pro-leave parliament overall.

Now of course, an election which switches from a remain majority to a leave majority necessarily implies a lot of remain MPs losing their job! But more significantly for the country, if there was an election immediately and Johnson managed to flood the commons with hard Brexiteers, they could do anything up to and including revoke the bill requiring the extension.

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    "no parliament can bind a later parliament". A parliament that enacts Brexit certainly binds all later parliaments; Britain is never getting back in on the same terms. The principle only holds in internal matters. – MSalters Sep 9 at 11:21
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    Of course, parliament is a lot less sovereign than it would like to be over foreign laws, physical laws, economic constraints, etc. These all have changes that are easier to make than to unmake. But for the purposes of the question, which is about internal British law, the principle that another bill could cancel the bill in question if Boris had a majority is well within the normal remit of the claim that Parliament cannot bind a later parliament. – Josiah Sep 9 at 17:05
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    If parliament orders a rock pushed down a hill, a later parliament may be unable to push it back up, but they cannot be forbidden to try. – Josiah Sep 9 at 17:06
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Johnson claims to have a great deal in the work that he can force the EU to accept if he can threaten the EU with suicide. While not enough parliament members trust that not to be an obvious lie (hence the no no deal law), the same is not the case with all UK voters. A plan good enough for the EU to get accepted before Oct 31 should be still good enough to be proposed even without the connected threat of suicide.

Assuming such a plan exists, it would need to involve considerable concessions to the EU to convince even Ireland to agree to it in a rush. That makes it very unlikely that either Johnson's current coalition partner, the DUP, or the part of Northern Ireland represented by it would be enthralled. Conceivably one reason he did not let the cat out of the bag so far, assuming that the bag is not empty in the first place.

Either way, it is definitely in the interest of the opposition parties to have Johnson deal with the fallout of all his Brexit-related decisions before having a new election. Whatever party has to deal with a Johnson-made deal or particularly a Johnson-made no-deal will likely experience a huge drop in popularity and lots of cat-calls from the opposition about how everything could have been done much better.

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The question is based on a flawed premise that the Opposition parties do not want an election. This is categorically not the case. The Opposition, in this case the Labour Party do want an election, they simply want to ensure that the extension to the Article 50 period is secured before that election is scheduled.

Politics Home do cover this at the end of a long article framed to suggest the Labour party are scared of an election we find this actual quote from Corbyn

And Mr Corbyn said of the PM: "He says he wants a general election. I want a general election. It's very simple: if he wants an election, get an extension and let's have an election."

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I was wondering what the wisest thing to do for the opposition would be right now.

There are some ways they can go: One is to prevent a no-deal brexit, possibly prevent brexit altogether, by winning an election very soon. But the timing for that is bad. If you want elections before 31st of October, Johnson can prevent that from happening. This is only possible if brexit is delayed to January.

Another way would be to vote for another referendum. If they wanted, there should be a majority for that. The last election was after 25 months, the next would be after 28 months according to Johnson's plan, so there is no reason not to have a new referendum after 40 months.

The final possibility is to sit it out. Let the Tories self destruct. Let them lead the UK into a no-deal brexit, no matter what the damage. Leave them in parliament with the opposition having a 20 seats majority for as long as possible, and letting them be hurt by the backlash when brexit turns out as bad as some predict.

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