Paris Gourtsoyannis: Why there (probably) won’t be a snap election

Theresa May delivers a speech during an election campaign visit to Langton Rugby Club in June last year
Theresa May delivers a speech during an election campaign visit to Langton Rugby Club in June last year
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A snap election might look attractive, but it isn’t the solution to anyone’s problems, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.

It’s not quite been 18 months since Brenda from Bristol captured the mood of a nation in three simple words: “Not another one?”

Already, her wisdom has been forgotten, and the perfectly valid question she posed has morphed into something even more desperate - when’s the next one?

From a certain perspective, a snap general election holds an irresistible logic. Viewed from 10 Downing Street, it looks like the only way to recover the Prime Minister’s long-vanished authority and bolt some credibility to a collapsing Brexit strategy.

On Thursday, as scale of Theresa May’s Salzburg humiliation became clear, her aides apparently discussed the possibility of going to the polls. It won’t have been the first time, and it’s doubtful that the conversations were taken as seriously by their participants as they were by the Sunday Times, which reported them.

But it’s easy to see why another snap election would haunt Downing Street dreams, even though they must still be having nightmares about the last one.

For Labour delegates in Liverpool, another election apparently can’t come soon enough, and their leader feels the same way. “We’re looking towards a general election, and you know what: we’re ready for it,” Jeremy Corbyn boldly predicted at the weekend. Having defied expectations last time round, Corbyn’s backers believe that a historic victory is in sight, allowing them to bring about the kind of government not seen in the UK in decades - if ever.

Less publicly, an election would also allow for the completion of the other strand of the Corbyn project, the one that his supporters are really interested in: seizing full control of the Labour party and pushing dejected opponents into the wilderness.

From the neutral point of view of an objective Brexit-watcher, too, a general election before the UK leaves the EU at the end of March 2019 - six months on Saturday - makes some sense.

Even if the Prime Minister does strike a deal in Brussels, there is little hope left of getting it through Westminster without the parliamentary majority she lost last year.

There is isn’t much time to hold a so-called People’s Vote, either, but it certainly won’t be called by this government. And if the deadlock in Brussels continues, the only way out is to extend the Article 50 process - again, not something this government is likely to do, in its current position.

With the UK trying to escape the Brexit maze against a ticking clock, and more and more avenues turning out to be dead ends, a general election seems the only possible escape route.

That doesn’t mean it will, or even can happen, though. It may look irresistible to the people in charge on both sides of parliament, but that is part of its undoing: when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

First of all, how would an election even be called? We learned in 2017 that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is meaningless when both the main parties really want one.

But to reach the two-thirds Commons majority now required, you need Tory backbenchers, and they aren’t at all keen to be led into another election by May, with polling suggesting much the same result as last time.

If the point of calling one is to break the Brexit deadlock, it’s worth remembering that not everyone would want to see it broken. Several dozen Brexiteer Tories would rather leave the EU without a deal than under a Chequers-style arrangement, and given that Chequers now looks impossible anyway, more are coming to the conclusion that negotiations should be abandoned altogether. The Prime Minister’s rhetoric in her post-Salzburg demand for respect from the EU only added to that feeling.

Why Tory Brexiteers back an election in which they could lose their seats and usher in a Corbyn government, when by running down the clock on Brexit (and May) they get what they wanted: no deal, plus the added bonus of a leadership race soon after?

The other way to get an election is a motion of no confidence in the government, which only requires a simple majority at Westminster. Labour claim a rejection of May’s Brexit deal would be enough, but a no-confidence motion has to be exactly that: a motion expressing no confidence. Jeremy Corbyn can’t bring that about on his own. With a no-deal Brexit looming, would Tory MPs really vote to bring down their own government?

The only other way to make up the numbers is with the DUP - which is one reason why, despite the growing bewilderment of more isolated English commentators, the Prime Minister can’t abandon her red line against a customs frontier in the Irish Sea.

And how deep is the enthusiasm among MPs in a divided Labour party for another election anyway? Not all of them are thrilled at the prospect.

I spoke to one candidate in Liverpool who has a tiny majority to overturn, but seemed quite happy to wait until after Brexit and beyond to take up a seat at Westminster.

Better to let the Tories take the blame for leaving the EU, they argued, and wait for the natural political coda that will follow.

“It’s like in 1951, when people voted out Attlee,” this candidate said. “People elect you to do a job, and when it’s done, that’s when they think about what comes next.”

Another reason for a lack of exuberance is Scotland, where Labour need to make the greatest gains to get into government, but have failed to advance. The party now faces being squeezed by the SNP on one side and the Tories on the other. Scottish Labour figures in Liverpool point to a poor run of by-election results as a warning of what could be to come.

A renewed sense that the party isn’t entirely comfortable with its stance on a second independence referendum also points to its difficulties: those around Richard Leonard tell him that standing in the middle of the road on independence means you get run over; those around Corbyn argue the party has to win over left-wing Yes voters. So the party runs back and forth through traffic.

Despite all the talk about a snap election, it may be that the toolbox is completely empty - not even a hammer. Brenda will be thrilled.