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Could there be an early general election?

Could there be an early general election?

Polling station sign being fixed to a windmill

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AFP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is making his second attempt to trigger an early general election, in a vote in the Commons later on Monday.

Mr Johnson had wanted an election to be held on 15 October, two days before a crucial European Union (EU) summit in Brussels, but lost a vote on the issue on Wednesday.

So, why was Mr Johnson unable to call an election and what are his remaining options?

Why does the PM want an early election?

Mr Johnson wants an early election to restore the Conservative Party's majority in the Commons.

While calling an early election carries risks, Mr Johnson would aim to win more Conservative seats in an attempt to end the political stalemate and make it easier to deliver Brexit.

Prime ministers used to be able to call an early election at the time of their choosing. But under the Fixed Term Parliaments Acts, Mr Johnson now needs the support of two-thirds of MPs – at least 434 – to trigger an early poll.

Having already lost one vote, opposition parties are likely to defeat him again. They say they will not back his call until a law aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit is implemented.

Mr Johnson's majority of one disappeared last week with the defection of Phillip Lee to the Lib Dems. The Conservatives' influence diminished further when he expelled 21 of his own MPs for voting against the government over the no-deal Brexit bill.

How soon could an election happen?

If enough MPs support an early election, the prime minister would recommend the date of the poll to the Queen.

Parliament would then be dissolved 25 working days before an election takes place,

At this point, politicians stop being MPs and they campaign for re-election, if they choose to stand again.

Why did Mr Johnson lose last week's vote?

Many MPs were worried that Mr Johnson would not stick to his pledge to hold the election on 15 October – his preferred date.

A motion, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, to call an early election does not specify the day it is to take place.

Instead, MPs simply voted on whether they agreed with the statement "that there shall be an early parliamentary general election".

Senior Labour figures said they would not vote for an early election while there was a risk the prime minister could move the poll to after 31 October – by which point the UK would have left the European Union.

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Getty Images

Image caption

Boris Johnson says the UK will leave the EU on 31 October "deal or no deal"

Does the PM have other options to call an early election?

While the Fixed Term Parliaments Act requires a two-thirds majority to sanction an early election, it is not impossible for a government to get round this requirement.

It could be achieved by introducing a very short law that calls for an election and adds "notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act".

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Getty Images

Image caption

UK general elections are normally held on a Thursday

The advantage of this route, from the government's point of view, is that it would only require a simple majority of MPs to support it (more voting for than against) rather than two-thirds.

It would also allow an election date to be set in stone, which might make some MPs more likely to vote for it – although there is no guarantee the government would win.

However, this route would take longer. The proposed law would need to clear the House of Lords, as well as the House of Commons. Given that Parliament is due to prorogue (or shut down) this week, getting the legislation passed would be a race against time.

There is also a risk that the legislation could be amended – allowing pro-Remain MPs to make changes, such as forcing a further Brexit extension.

High-risk options

There is a third, extremely high-risk option. If the government was absolutely determined to hold an early election it could, in theory, call a vote of no confidence in itself.

If it chose to do this, MPs would have to decide whether they want the current government to continue.

If such a vote passes, opposition parties would be allowed two weeks to come together to try to form an alternative government. If this happened, Mr Johnson would be expected to resign and a new prime minister could request a further Brexit delay to prevent a no-deal outcome.

But, if nothing is resolved after 14 days, a general election is automatically triggered.

However, this would be a high stakes strategy, as it completely relies on opposition parties failing to form an alternative government.

Catherine Haddon, from the Institute for Government think tank, says the chances of the government calling such a vote are "extremely unlikely".

"From a political point of view, calling a vote of no confidence in yourself would look mad," she says.

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