She’s threatened to do it if she doesn’t get her way. But how? According to the Parliament website, there are only two ways an early election can be called. The first is this:
a motion for a general election is agreed by two thirds of the total number of seats in the Commons including vacant seats (currently 434 out of 650)
I don’t see how she can get 434 votes for this, even supposing she can survive long enough to call such a vote. Suppose all the opposition MPs support it, which is likely; that’s about 321 seats. That means she would need another 113 votes (give or take a few) from Conservative MPs. Given the high risk these MPs would run in losing their seats at this stage, not to mention their party losing government to a hard left Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, would 113 Tory MPs really vote for it? Maybe you’d get some May loyalists doing it, but 113? When they could just change leader and have another 3.5 years in power, and hopefully get themselves into better shape by 2022 for the next scheduled election? Tory MPs may be dumb, but they’re surely not that dumb.
And what would they be voting for, exactly? If Theresa May loses her Brexit vote, then she and her deal are finished. The country isn’t going to flock to the polls to support her. The party would most likely dump her as leader anyway, and things would move on without her. So the idea that she’d get 113 Tory MPs to support her on an early election are very far-fetched.
The other way an early election can be called is this:
a motion of no confidence is passed in Her Majesty’s Government by a simple majority and 14 days elapses without the House passing a confidence motion in any new Government formed
So that just requires a majority of MPs, not two-thirds. But would Theresa May really call for a no-confidence motion in her own government (or arrange for the opposition to call one)? Actually, after what we’ve seen of her in the last few years, I think we can say, yes, she probably would. She’d do anything, no matter how unscrupulous, if it helped her cling to power, and scuttled Brexit. For that to work, she may only need a dozen unhinged Remainer Tory MPs who hate their own party to vote with her.
But I’m not sure even the likes of Anna Soubry would be that crazy, for the reasons given above. And even if they were, and the vote somehow passes, there would still be fourteen days before the early election would be called, and in that fourteen days a lot could happen. Perhaps Corbyn would himself win a confidence vote, which would immediately make him PM. That’s not an unlikely outcome, because I imagine the DUP MPs would switch sides if May went down this route, and their votes would be enough to propel him and Labour to power.
Besides, you’d presume that if May did pull this off that she’d be immediately dumped by the Conservatives in a party confidence vote. With the prospect of a new leader in store, even if that requires the full party election process, the Conservatives might win another Parliamentary confidence vote, by, er, voting for themselves (with the help of the DUP).
So it looks to me like May is bluffing about the early election. I can’t see any such attempt ending well for her. What will save the day for her in reality is getting her wretched deal through Parliament. Her various threats, including the early election threat, are desperate attempts to scare MPs into voting for it. She has to get the deal through Parliament. That’s where she stands or falls.
Some Brexiteers, like James Delingpole, who’s soothing my nerves a bit with this article, are pretty confident that her deal won’t get through Parliament. I’d also say it’s likely that it won’t get through — in fact you’d hope that it won’t even get to Parliament and that May is deposed within days — but you can never be sure. Who knows what devious games will be played? Who can be sure that a sufficient number of Labour Remainers won’t support her when it comes to the vote?
(The best thing for Labour, though, is to vote against so that May can go even more haywire and then sabotage her party even more.)
One thing’s for sure. If May gets this through Parliament then the Conservatives will be immediately dead. But if it’s killed, and a better leader installed, then they’ll probably limp on.
Update: Cabinet ministers finally starting to do the right thing and resign, so hopefully May will be gone within days. But why did they let it get to this stage? At least Davis, Johnson and Baker had the excuse that May had been pulling the wool over their eyes with her secret plans.
Update 2: Of course it’s possible that a new Conservative leader might choose to call an early election, and be able to do so under the two-thirds rule because the party feels that in those circumstances it has to to happen. But in this post I was concerned with how Theresa May would do so.