Could new UK PM Boris Johnson call a snap general election?

Could new UK PM Boris Johnson call a snap general election?
Copyright Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
By Lauren Chadwick
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Speculation is swirling over whether the UK's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson will pull off a shock by calling an early general election.


Speculation is swirling over whether the UK's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson will pull off a shock by calling an early general election.

Johnson's visit to all corners of the UK, his promises of infrastructure spending in traditionally Labour-voting areas and a new advisor that is an expert in campaigning have all helped fuel the idea the country is heading to the polls.

And then, there is Brexit.

Read more: Brexit Guide: where are we now?

Johnson has promised to take the UK out of the EU by October 31 but this could prove harder with a dwindling parliamentary majority.

Read more: Here's a history of the UK and EU's rocky relationship

Calling a snap general election would give him hope of getting more MPs elected that are behind his Brexit plan.

Rumours have persisted about an early election, even though Johnson has ruled one out. His predecessor Theresa May said there would be no snap election, but then promptly called one.

Pollster Joe Twyman, who co-founded Delta Poll, told Euronews he thinks August will be "crucial" for the prime minister.

That's because Johnson "has to answer this fundamental question: Which is more difficult? Holding a general election before Brexit has been sorted out or sorting out Brexit without a new general election."

Here we look at the reasons for believing Johnson may be preparing an early election and the likelihood of it happening.

Reaching out to traditional Labour voters

Johnson stoked speculation when he announced he would give £1.8bn (€1.96bn) in extra funding to the National Health Service, which, like promises to fund a high-speed railway between Manchester and Leeds, is likely to appeal more to opposition Labour voters.

"We could have a general election very soon," said shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth, a Labour MP, on Sky News Sunday.

"There's speculation in the newspapers again today that the Tories are preparing for a general election.

"That's what today's announcement [about NHS funding] is about."

But James Cleverly, chairman of Johnson's ruling Conservative Party, said the party would not "initiate" a general election.

He justified what experts said resembled election preparations by saying it was just a new prime minister delivering on his commitments.

Appointing campaign expert Dominic Cummings

Johnson's choice in advisers has also added fuel to the fire.


Many point to the arrival of Dominic Cummings — who ran the Vote Leave operation and is credited with helping to swing the Brexit referendum — as evidence that preparations are afoot for another campaign.

"Giving Cummings such an important, if ill-defined, role suggests Johnson intends to be governing in campaign mode," John Rentoul, The Independent's chief political commentator, told Euronews.

"I think he wants to be ready to fight an election at any time, and he believes, as did Clinton and Blair, and as does Trump, in permanent election campaigning."

Other parties are preparing too. Heidi Allen, the MP from South Cambridgeshire who resigned from the Conservative Party in February, said that with a "high likelihood of a General Election soon", her pro-Remain alliance would begin "urgent preparations to maximise our chance of returning to Parliament as many Remain-supporting MPs as possible".

Meanwhile, the Conservatives also released a number of Facebook adverts that contained only subtle differences, which observers said indicated the Conservatives could be testing ads for an election campaign.


One Facebook advert released after Johnson became prime minister listed numerous domestic priorities with a large picture of Johnson: "Brexit by October 31. The NHS. Schools. Police. The Economy."

“If you remember back to Theresa May losing her majority, one of the big things that happened there was that they devoted so much time and energy into whether or not there should be an election that they really didn’t do a good job of planning for the election when it came,” said Rosa Prince, journalist and author of Theresa May, the Enigmatic Prime Minister and Comrade Corbyn.

“So their social media strategy was terrible.”

Johnson's dwindling parliamentary majority

One of the earliest tests of Johnson's popularity came in a by-election in Wales. The Conservatives lost and their parliamentary majority was cut to just one.

Read more:Why is the Brecon by-election so important to Boris? | Euronews Answers


"Down to one makes life governing really difficult, you know, you have one MP who’s ill and that’s it, you’ve lost your majority... So he’s going to want to have an election as soon as possible," said Prince.

On top of this, some Conservative MPs who are against Johnson's Brexit policy of leaving without a deal if one cannot be agreed may defect.

Read more: No-deal Brexit: what would ‘WTO terms’ mean for UK-EU trade?

Dr Phillip Lee, a former justice minister, is one of those. He told the Guardian: “I have things to think about over the summer, but it is not just me.”

But Iain Begg, a professorial research fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute, said the by-election hadn’t changed Johnson’s slim majority that much.


"I think it’s not really altered the geography all that much in the House of Commons," Prof Begg told Euronews, especially if the Conservatives can count on a few Labour votes on topics such as Brexit.

The by-election could also discourage Johnson from calling an early election. He would have seen Nigel Farage's Brexit Party got more than 10% of the vote, stoking fears the movement could take crucial votes away from the Conservatives.

The polling data is looking good for the Conservatives

"Typically a new PM comes in and the polls give him a chance basically saying okay we’ll increase our support for the new guy because we want to give him a chance," said Prof Begg.

A YouGov/Times survey on July 31 — a week after Johnson became PM — showed the Conservatives with a double-digit lead over other parties.

It asked 2,066 British adults which party they would vote for if a general election were held the next day to which 32% responded Conservative, 22% Labour, 19% Lib Dem, and 8% Green.


Twyman, the co-founder of Delta Poll, warned that although individual polls look good for the Conservatives, it's uncertain if they reflect a larger trend in favour of the new prime minister.

"We don’t yet know whether Boris Johnson becoming the leader of the Conservatives is a turning point for their electoral fortunes or just a talking point for Westminster," he said.

He also said it was difficult to model how a four-way fight between Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party would actually play out.

Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system means that in the event of a four-party contest, "you can have an outright winner on a low share of the vote," Begg explained.

"It only takes one or two percentage points out of the way to make a big difference... you could see three maybe four parties sharing the spoils and no overall majority which would be another hung parliament as we have at present," he added.


The looming threat of a vote of no confidence

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has suggested he will call a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s government when Parliament returns on September 3.

The idea is to prevent the new prime minister from taking Britain out of the European Union without a deal.

If Johnson loses the confidence vote, that could trigger an election. First, there is a two-week period when the government can try and persuade MPs to change their minds, or, other parties can come forward to form an alternative government.

But, if not, there is then a minimum of 25 working days to prepare for an election, although this time table could be changed by parliament.

This all means it is very tight — in the scenario of the government losing a no-confidence vote — to have an election before Brexit on October 31.


The Sunday Telegraph reported that Dominic Cummings told ministers Brexit would happen whether or not Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn triggered a general election because they would hold the election after the October 31 Brexit deadline.

The shadow health secretary, Ashworth, said he disagreed with this assessment.

"Let's see what happens in September," Ashworth said.

Rentoul added: “Corbyn is reluctant to put down a motion of no confidence while he knows he would lose it… its significance is that it is the last resort for stopping a no-deal Brexit, but it cannot be deployed until close to the time.”

Read more: No-deal Brexit: everything you need to know


The left-field idea: a second Brexit referendum?

A general election before Brexit would be, in effect, a second referendum, according to pro-remain Conservative MP Sam Gyimah.

"It's not impossible that Johnson, pushed by Cummings, would call a second referendum rather than a general election," Begg said. Cummings might see it as a "winnable" referendum.

"This is a way to cut through in effect the Gordian knot," he added.

Many say it’s too early to tell what will transpire over the next few months, but a general election looks more likely than it did before.

“He is not really taking the steps that would be necessary to prevent a general election,” said Prince, which include keeping remain MPs “onside” and talking with the opposition.


“I think a general election is more likely than everyone considered at the beginning of his premiership," she added.

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