When we commented recently on the UK Government’s proposals for legislating for withdrawal from the European Union, we anticipated that the next significant development to comment on would be the meeting of the other EU member states on 29th April. However, the old saying that a week is a long time in politics is proving particularly true in the context of anything relating to leaving the European Union and we now find ourselves commenting on the announcement of a UK general election.
In a statement yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that she intends to call a general election for 8th June. Under the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act 2011, she will need approval from at least two thirds of MPs before requesting a dissolution of Parliament by the Queen and the Prime Minister intends to propose such a motion in the House of Commons tomorrow. The Prime Minister has said she has “reluctantly concluded” that an election is necessary because of the opposition which the other parties in the Commons and the House of Lords are putting up to the Government’s approach to Brexit. The prime Minister said that without a general election now, “political game-playing” would continue and negotiations would reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election. She also spoke of a “one-off chance” to get this done while the EU agrees its negotiating position and before detailed talks begin.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was intended to reduce the potential for Prime Ministers to call sudden elections by requesting the monarch to dissolve Parliament. It was introduced as part of the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition pact and its underlying political motive was to stabilise the coalition government. Under the provisions of the Act, parliaments are elected for a five-year term and a general election will be held at the end of that term on fixed dates at five year intervals. However, the Act does make provision for an early election to be called if the House of Commons passes a vote of no confidence in the government in power at the time or votes for an early election in a motion approved by at least two thirds of MPs. It is this latter provision which the Prime Minister is expecting to use to enable a general election to take place on 8th June. The reaction of other political parties has been to welcome the opportunity to take on the Conservative party in a general election, so it is likely that the Prime Minister will secure the votes that she needs for the debate to go ahead. It would seem that the when faced with a challenge from an incumbent Prime Minister to go to the country, the political consequences of being seen to refuse the challenge have trumped the constitutional innovation of the fixed term. The first and only general election held in accordance with the fixed term requirements of the Act was the general election of 7 May 2015. With the Prime Minister using the provisions of the Act to bring forward the date of the next general election, it seems that the “Fixed-term” Parliaments Act 2011 will fail to live up to its title. There is already speculation that the Conservative manifesto will propose the repeal of the Act.
The calling of an election in the UK is likely to be seen by the rest of Europe as a domestic matter and not something which the other member states would expect to affect or delay their own talks about negotiations with the EU.
The comments made by the Prime Minister when setting out her reasons for seeking a general election indicate that the nature of the debates to date about withdrawal from Europe have played a part in her thinking. The fact that the Prime Minister has felt the need to take such action to strengthen her domestic political position shortly after the triggering of Article 50, but at a very early stage of preparation for a future outside the EU, suggests an apprehension that there will be some difficult times over the next two years during the negotiations and of the eventual challenge of taking the treaty of withdrawal through the “meaningful vote” that was promised during the passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. The Prime Minister is taking her only opportunity to strengthen her domestic political decision.
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