Theresa May declared this week that a snap general election on Brexit was “not in the national interest”; Downing Street denied on Friday that an early poll was on the way. No wonder some in Whitehall are on election alert.
The British prime minister proved in 2017 she was perfectly capable of ruling out an election until the moment when she called one. So when Whitehall mandarins discussed contingency plans for a snap poll this week, there was a sense of urgency to their talks.
Since Tuesday’s crushing 230 vote defeat for Mrs May’s Brexit deal, ministers and senior officials have started discussing the prospect of an election to break the political deadlock.
“In the end, if everything else is stalled, you have to change the parliamentary maths,” said Grant Shapps, who was Conservative chairman ahead of the party’s 2015 election victory. “There are a lot of crazy Brexit scenarios, but this is no more crazy than the others.”
Downing Street has confirmed that Mark Sedwill, Britain’s top civil servant, discussed contingency plans for an election with senior officials this week. The Cabinet Office said Sir Mark frequently discussed “a wide range of issues” with colleagues.
Three cabinet ministers have indicated to the Financial Times that an election is a possibility, while former Tory leader William Hague told business figures this week that the prospects of a poll had been under-reported in the media.
So will an election happen? “The prime minister’s head is not anywhere near that space,” said one ally, saying that all Mrs May’s efforts were focused on winning approval from MPs for a tweaked Brexit deal in the House of Commons debate scheduled for January 29.
But a Tory official said: “If she loses the vote on January 29, I could well imagine her turning around and saying that she cannot get any deal through the Commons, there will have to be an election.”
An election would offer Mrs May the opportunity to go over the head of her Conservative critics at Westminster and present a revamped version of her Brexit deal directly to voters in the hope of securing a Commons majority and a new mandate.
It might be the only feasible way to get out of the Brexit morass without splitting the Conservative party: currently she is facing a choice between a hard Brexit favoured by Eurosceptics and a softer form of exit or no exit at all, favoured by pro-Europeans. Both sides have been issuing her ultimatums, threatening resignations or votes against the government if the prime minister fails to fall in line with their demands.
Mr Shapps argues that Mrs May could craft a manifesto committing to delivering on her Brexit deal while “sorting out the Irish backstop”, the most contentious part of the exit deal. The backstop, loathed by Tory Eurosceptics, could keep the UK in a customs union with the EU to prevent a hard border with Ireland.
Such an approach might partially paper over the cracks in Mrs May’s party, although the splits would still be visible.
An election would also force Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn into a tight spot, with a big question over whether his party would wage a Leave or Remain campaign. Mr Corbyn wants to fight to deliver a more Labour-friendly Brexit, but his supporters overwhelmingly want a second referendum to overturn Brexit.
But although Mr Shapps thinks an election is on the cards, many other former Tory chairmen believe it would be a foolish move. Lord Patten said: “I think it would be crazy. I don’t see how an election campaign would increase the Conservative majority, which would be the only point of it. The one thing Jeremy Corbyn is good at is firing up people in an election.”
Another senior Tory, close to Mrs May, said: “Unless you’re going to win by a landslide, which we’re not, or unless you’re going to completely refresh the Conservative parliamentary party, which we won’t, what’s the point?”
Caroline Spelman, Tory chairwoman under David Cameron, quoted a voter whose expression of dismay at the 2017 election went viral: “I’m with Brenda in Bristol, it won’t solve anything.”
The Fixed Term Parliament act specifies that the next general election should take place in 2022, but it can be short-circuited in two key ways.
One route is a vote of no confidence, which can pave the way to an election. Having failed to win such a vote this week, Mr Corbyn has said he is prepared to put forward repeated no confidence motions. But to succeed he would need very disgruntled Tory MPs to vote down their own government or Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party to turn on Mrs May.
The alternative would be for the government to trigger an election: this can only take place with opposition support, since it requires the approval of two-thirds of MPs, as occurred in 2017.
Under another scenario discussed in Westminster, the prime minister would ask Mr Corbyn to back her EU withdrawal deal now in exchange for a promise of a general election in May.
In such an election, the Tories — probably under new leadership — would fight Labour for a fresh mandate for Brexit’s next stage: the negotiation of a new trade agreement.
Recent opinion polls have tended to show the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck, although some have given Mrs May’s party a lead. A YouGov survey this month put the Tories on 40 per cent, ahead of Labour’s 34 per cent.
However there is limited enthusiasm among Conservatives for a snap election. One cabinet minister, asked whether they favoured such a poll, wailed: “No.”
There is also a question of whether the Tories would let Mrs May lead the party into a snap election after her 2017 failure to win a majority and her announcement last month that she would not fight the next poll.
Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It’s not a crazy idea, it’s a traditional port in the storm.” Dr Jörg Mathias, senior politics lecturer at Aston University, countered: “Nobody has an appetite for a general election.”