Why Britain Could Still Have Two More Years of Voting Ahead

  • May has good reasons to call early general election in 2017
  • Sturgeon may not be able to escape new Scots independence vote

Are Britons to Face Another Election in 2017?

The U.K. had a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, a general election in 2015 and the Brexit decision in 2016, but it may not be finished voting yet. The court ruling that the government can’t begin negotiations with the European Union without first asking Parliament has added to reasons why Britain could be going to the polls again in 2017 -- and then once more in 2018.

Possibility One: General Election in 2017

An election isn’t due until 2020, and Theresa May has promised not to call an early vote, but that doesn’t mean she won’t go for one in in the first half of next year. Analysts from Deutsche Bank AG to Eurasia have mooted an early election and for all the denials -- the latest on Thursday -- there’s a series of reasons for thinking it’s a possibility.

Why go for it?

Unless the Supreme Court overturns the High Court ruling, May needs to get a vote through Parliament to begin Brexit negotiations. But her current majority is slim, and many on her own side have doubts about her strategy. So she risks being forced to set out more of her plans than she wants to, or even being told to go for a particular flavor of Brexit.

Having become prime minister after David Cameron’s sudden resignation, May has no electoral mandate to head the government, or indeed to choose between different types of Brexit.

But here’s a solution: She’s currently way ahead in the polls, suggesting that if she did call an election, she could hope for a majority of more than 50 in the House of Commons, compared with 15 now. So far, the economy has proved resilient to the referendum result, growing a stronger-than-expected 0.5 percent in the third quarter.

If she goes a full term, she runs the risk that Brexit damages the economy in the meantime and she’ll be seeking re-election from voters who feel poorer and blame her. There’s also the danger that, given time, the opposition Labour Party, currently divided under leader Jeremy Corbyn and trailing in the polls, finds a solution to its problems.

But surely she’s previously rejected the idea?

That’s not really an issue. Parliamentary difficulties implementing Brexit would provide all the excuse she needed to go back on her word.

What are the problems?

The practical legal obstacle is the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, specifying five-year periods between House of Commons elections, but that’s not insuperable. May would need the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers to call a vote -- and Labour says it supports an immediate election. Even if that turned out not to be true in practice, she would have the option of calling a vote of no-confidence in her own government. It would be an unusual move, but not the most surprising thing to have happened in British politics in recent times.

The bigger question is how firm that poll lead really is -- and such surveys have not very reliable in recent years. “By next year we will be well into the mid-term blues,” says Anthony Wells of polling company YouGov. “Corbyn is such a strong card on the Tory side that there’s a very good chance the Tories would increase their majority, but they shouldn’t think this would be easy.”

Anand Menon, professor of politics at Kings College, London, offered another objection: Next year is already quite busy enough. "We will be doing Article 50, and there’s a limit to what else we can do,” he said. “An election would be an incredible waste of time.”

And a general election might just be the start...

Possibility Two: Scottish Independence Referendum in 2018

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared all-powerful when she addressed the Scottish National Party conference in Glasgow last month. But that could be deceptive. She admitted in her opening speech that she’d been under constant pressure to announce another referendum on leaving the U.K. Her problem is that the polls suggest public opinion hasn’t shifted much since Scots rejected separation in 2014.

Sturgeon went on to threaten a vote if May doesn’t get the kind of Brexit that the SNP wants. While this looks like keeping her options open, it may mean she’s painting herself into a corner. When May reveals the deal, Sturgeon will either have to declare it acceptable or announce an independence referendum. Given the SNP’s default hostility to the Tories, the former would be a problematic stance for the first minister.

On the other hand, if anyone can escape an impossible trap, it’s Sturgeon. “SNP supporters want a referendum, but they want to wait until they can win, as well,” says Wells. “And they’re very loyal. Almost any policy you put before them, as soon as the SNP have announced it, they love it.”

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