DEBUG: blog_post
Will there be a general election?
01 Oct, 2018

MPs are more likely to vote for a referendum

As a companion piece to the recent article about the Labour Party Conference, London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg gets his crystal ball out. It’s pretty cloudy; the only certainty is that there are storms on the way. But it is not obvious that Jeremy Corbyn would have his way and obtain a general election. That makes a referendum on the terms of Brexit more likely. Additional material provided by Nick Hopkinson, London4Europe Vice-Chair.

The Mechanics of calling an Election

Let’s ignore the call from Labour shadow minister Laura Smith MP to topple the government by a general strike and focus on more constitutional measures.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) 2011, there are only two ways of calling a general election before the set date of May 2022.

Two thirds of MPs could vote for it. When counting MPs eligible to vote, Sinn Fein (who do not take up their seats and I assume will continue with abstentionism), the Speaker (who does not vote) and vacancies (I am assuming none) are included. So the necessary vote is 434 out of 650.

Or the Government could lose a free-standing vote of confidence (ie not an ordinary piece of legislation designated to be a matter of confidence) on a simple majority of those voting. If after a fortnight no government can be formed that obtains the confidence of the House there would then be a general election.

The current state of the Parties








Scottish National Party


Liberal Democrat


Democratic Unionist Party




Sinn Féin


Plaid Cymru


Green Party




Total number of seats



Even if all available non-Conservative MPs voted for an early election Labour would only obtain the necessary two thirds majority if 107 Conservatives backed them. In practice, that would only happen if the government also wanted a general election.

If the Conservatives and DUP (325) hold together, they have a majority of 8 over the other parties.

If the Conservatives (315) hold together, all the other parties together have a majority of 12.

However, let's not forget the eurosceptic Kate Hoey who is still (just) in Labour. 

What about the independents?

One should not forget the eight independent MPs who include those who stood as independent as well as those suspended by their parties or disillusioned: Charlie Elphicke (Dover: formerly Con), Frank Field (Birkenhead: formerly Lab), Andrew Griffiths (Burton: formerly Con), Lady Hermon (North Down: Independent Unionist), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North: formerly Lab), Ivan Lewis (Bury South: formerly Lab), Jared O'Mara (Sheffield Hallam: formerly Lab), John Woodcock (Barrow & Furness: formerly Lab).

The voting records of these eight suggest Lady Hermon, Ivan Lewis, Jared O'Mara and John Woodcock are pro-European. The other four are not. The overall balance suggests they roughly cancel each other out, although a Eurosceptic majority of at least one might be enough to swing any overall vote.

Lessons from 2017

In the 2016 referendum, 16m voted Remain. In the June 2017 general election, 4m voted for Remain parties.

But Labour, although supporting a hard Brexit very similar in substance to the Conservatives, led many of its voters to believe that it stood for Remain. In December 2017, over half of Labour-voting students thought that both Jeremy Corbyn and Labour stood for Remain. A separate poll at the same time found that 40% of Labour voters in general thought that Labour stood for Remain.

Even if one accepts that 40% of Labour voters thought they were voting for a Remain party and adds them in, the Remain tally in the election only comes to 10m. The conclusion that I draw is that most Remainers did not prioritise Brexit in the election, but voted rather on normal domestic issues.

A further pre-Brexit general election might well be different for two reasons. It will I hope be harder for Labour to mislead the electorate about its Brexit stance to the same extent. Second, with Government talk of stockpiling medicines and the negotiations reaching a climax it will be harder for people to push Brexit down their personal priority order.

First past the post militates against the Remain parties. But with both main parties backing Brexit it is possible that more Remainers would back Remain parties in a new general election.

Would a majority of MPs vote for an election?

There are a number of scenarios that could lead to a general election or a referendum on the terms. But they depend on many variables, including:

  • where will the Conservatives position themselves after they eventually acknowledge the failure of the Chequers Plan? The most likely would be to head towards Canada/ FTA (with Irish backstop), loosely in line with the wishes of most of the party membership but with Ministers keen to avoid the damage of no-deal;
  • will the SNP prefer to have Brexit – seeing it as a recruiting sergeant for indyref2? Or will they come out in a practical rather than rhetorical sense for Remain?
  • Will either of the main parties change their leader?
  • Will there be a realignment of parties, with some MPs sitting as independents, or creating a new centre bloc, or changing parties?

Rumours that Theresa May is considering a snap election to gain support for her next Brexit plan are hard to take seriously. 2016 showed the folly of using the electoral system to settle intra-party disputes. 2017 showed what a poor campaigner she was. It would seem an extraordinarily high risk for the Prime Minister to take.

None of the other parties is really pressing for an election, though none likes to look as though it is afraid to meet the electorate.

Surely no Conservative MP would vote for Corbyn as Prime Minister, no matter what he promised to do on Brexit. It is hard to see the Liberal Democrats welcoming him as the leader of their Movement of Moderates. A call for Parliament to approve a Corbyn Government would presumably fail.

It is easy to see Rees-Mogg, Johnson, the DUP & co voting against the Government’s Brexit legislation in order to bring about either a Conservative party leadership challenge or a no-deal or harder Brexit. But not to force a general election to put Corbyn in power even if he promised a harder Brexit. The rebels would essentially be saying, like Enoch Powell, that they and their electors should vote for Corbyn and Labour. But Corbyn is such a unifying factor in the Conservative party that it is hard to take the prospect seriously. Rather Rees-Mogg & co would like Michael Gove take any Brexit for now and harden it later.

Nor would the Remain-leaning Conservative MPs back Jeremy Corbyn’s slightly softer Brexit – what’s the point. A conversion to Remain or a referendum on the terms would struggle to be seen as trustworthy.

So it is hard to see a Parliamentary majority for an election.

Would a majority of MPs vote for a referendum on the terms?


Certainly if Theresa May’s proposal is a no-deal Brexit she will shock almost all opposition MPs into opposing her Brexit legislation. A fair few Conservative MPs would join them if it did not mean supporting Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister or precipitating a general election.

If Theresa May reaches an agreement with the EU then the calculation would be different. Norway/ EEA/ CU might be seen as an acceptable compromise – would be likely to pass Keir Starmer’s six tests, even. But a hard Brexit (Canada/ FTA) might push enough Conservative Remainers to make their opposition concrete. They have so far backed off when it came to the crunch. But they might find the courage they need when the issue is clear enough and they have a vote that they could win for some alternative that is clearly a better way ahead.

A procedural difficulty is that for Conservative Remainers to vote for a referendum requires Labour to commit itself solidly to an amendment for a referendum on one of the Government’s bills. For as long as Labour holds to its desire for a general election they will presumably continue to abstain on or oppose votes for a referendum at least until after they have tried to obtain a general election. If so, it will only be Liberal Democrats, Green and a few brave Labour MPs in the lobby for the People’s Vote. That means that Labour’s desire for a general election makes no-deal more likely.


The meaningful vote will lead to a crisis in British politics. Anything can happen. Predictions are pretty worthless. But it is easy to see at least the possibility that some Conservatives would vote against whatever deal the Prime Minister comes up with. And then it is hard to see Conservatives voting for a general election that they cannot feel optimistic about. If both votes go as suggested here, the Article 50 clock would be taking us to a no-deal Brexit, and Parliament would need to find a way forward.

Some Conservatives might vote for a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain. It would defer, perhaps defuse, what they see as the threat of a Corbyn government. For Conservative Remainers it would provide the chance to Remain on a vote worth all the aggro they would get from the whips and their party. Other Conservatives might just wish to share the blame for Brexit with the electorate.

However, that would require Labour to make it their policy once a general election has been ruled out and enforce the whip. It would also require the SNP to be clear in their support. Given that Labour’s hard Brexiters would vote against it will be a very close-run vote.

The focus of our campaigning should be the referendum on the terms (People’s Vote), not that Labour come out for Remain. Jeremy Corbyn could let Labour people choose for which side to campaign, which worked well in 1975.




Articles on this page reflect the views of the authors and not necessarily of London4Europe