Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 24 August 2019

Why a November General Election looks most likely, and why a government of national unity will not happen.

When I wrote this based on Johnson winning a November general election, someone asked me whether it was a prediction or a warning. It was both. I still think it is the most likely outcome..Here are my thoughts that led me to that conclusion, which of course may be completely wrong.  

Putting Brexit to one side, Johnson needs a larger majority to govern. So an election sometime in 2019 seems very likely. It is also clear he wants this to be a ‘people versus parliament’ election, where of course Johnson represents the people and parliament ‘is colluding with the EU’ to block No Deal. He has hit the ground running with various popular measures. So the key question is when in 2019 the election will be.

There seem to be three possibilities.

  1. An election before 31st October
  2. An election announced before 31st October that takes place after that date
  3. An election in November or December

An important factor governing this choice is that Johnson will avoid an election after we crash out with no deal, unless he is completely deluded about what crashing out means. Even if he blames the EU for everything that goes wrong, voters will not take kindly to a government that played down the consequences of crashing out when crashing out turns out to have severe consequences.

This means that if he intends to leave with no deal, his only choice is (1). But he needs a pretext, and that pretext would have to be MPs instructing the PM to get an extension if he fails to agree a deal. He could ask parliament on 19th September to call an election to be held on 24th October, for example, but that would rely on parliament acting very quickly to rule out crashing out. Johnson also misses out on a crowd pleasing budget. It would be odd to base a complete strategy on parliament moving quickly, but nevertheless I think it has to be the second most likely outcome, particularly if he thinks leaving by 31st October is critical in suppressing the Brexit Party vote. .

Leaving this possibility to one side, we can rule out Johnson ignoring an instruction from parliament to extend the A50 deadline, because it involves holding an election during the chaos of crashing out. Which suggests all the talk of governments of national unity is a red herring, but for rather different reasons than Stephen Bush gives here. Labour may still call for a vote of no confidence (VONC), but Tory rebels are likely to vote it down while they pursue other avenues to stop no deal. Corbyn's choice about whether to call a VONC is lose/lose: if he doesn't he gets blamed and if he does and fails it will be spun as Tory MPs not wanting to support a Corbyn led government.  

If we rule out the improbable early election option (1), and we also assume Johnson will not want to hold an election after we crash out, then this means Johnson will accept an instruction from parliament to obtain an extension before 31st October. That would be obtained on the assurance of an imminent general election, and the EU would almost certainly accept this. Johnson gets his people versus parliament election.

This has the disadvantage, of course, that Johnson will have failed to keep his promise of leaving by 31st October, which risks a revival of the Brexit Party. He could respond that he has been forced to do so by an instruction from parliament which it would be irresponsible of him to ignore. His election campaign would be that the EU would have offered an alternative to the backstop, but this was undermined by MPs ruling No Deal out. 

As calling a general election before 31st October to be held after that date (option 2) mixes the task of campaigning with having to ask the EU for an extension, a November election seems the most likely outcome, although far from certain. 

There are another set of possibilities where Johnson really wants a deal, which is based - as Aleks Eror suggests - on something like a backstop for Northern Ireland alone. This is what the EU originally suggested of course, but no doubt Johnson could dress it up as a result of his tough talking, and much of the press would back him up. This leads to the same place. Parliament would reject the deal with the ERG and DUP in the lead, but he could fight an election on this basis and use a victory as a mandate.

If there is a November election, a Johnson victory seems the most likely option, although again far from certain. While Johnson taking over as PM has squeezed the Brexit Party’s support, Labour has so far only received a small recovery in its vote since the European Elections and the Liberal Democrats remain strong. Of course that may change before any election, but I would say the balance of probability is that this will fail to stop many Remainers in key Lab/Con marginals from voting LibDem or Green rather than Labour.

The irony of all this, if I'm correct, is that Johnson is looking to his rebel MPs to stop a no deal Brexit. A failure to do so, if this was accompanied by a failure to negotiate a new deal with the EU, would require either fighting an election after the chaos of crashing out, or Johnson choosing rather than being instructed to get an extension, as May did in March. If that happened then Johnson would suffer the same fate as May, and the Brexit Party would revive. Only in those circumstances might we not see an election in 2019.


  1. Jason Carabiblio24 August 2019 at 09:52

    Solid comments from a Remainer it seems.

  2. I don't understand why Wren-Lewis thinks it unlikely that Boris would schedule an election for 1 November, the day after No Deal Brexit. (Some people have suggested this is Dominic Cummings' preferred date.)

    Even assuming there are some immediate consequences to No Deal, such as trucks queuing at Dover, the electorate won't have any basis for judging how serious the problems are or how long they're likely to last. Support for the Brexit Party would collapse--they are a single-issue party whose issue would have been won--and the Tories would probably win an absolute majority.

  3. On a more optimistic note, Wren-Lewis might be wrong in assuming that if Johnson endorses a backstop for Northern Ireland alone (essentially, a border in the Irish Sea) the revised deal will still fail. A vote on any other deal will give the Labour Party a chance to do what it should have done with May's deal: namely to avoid disaster by ratifying it.

  4. Another possibility would be to hold the election on Oct 31 or Nov 1st, before the consequences of no-deal become apparent to everyone. That is what Nick Boles warned of in his letter to Corbyn.
    Losing a no confidence vote in early September would have the added benefit for Johnson that Parliament would be not sitting in October.

  5. Interesting exercise, but I think the problems are that 1) there are too many options (this is a complex Prisoners' Dilemma) because the coalitions are too fragile and actors fragmented, and 2) the actors themselves might not be seeing things clearly (bounded rationality, in all its forms--from information costs, to scrambled or incoherent preferences, to blind stupidity or ideology). In other words, your account is too rational, and there's a lot of accident and "irrationality" (or alternative rationality) at play here. I think we're at something like a revolutionary moment--where there is contingent moment after contingent moment, and everyone is playing a complex, multiplayer game of chicken. It's also difficult to know the preferences. For example, what do the DUP really want? If I look at this one way, I see a group that is blindly committed to a particular variation of the unionist cause (one that is really socially conservative), and they would prefer to crash out and resurrect a border with Ireland proper. On the other hand, if I grant the DUP some sense (a stretch, I know), then I can see them being stubborn to constantly sabotage any deal to make sure that the choices are only bard Brexit or no Brexit. I sum, I think we have something more akin to using theory to make sense of the moment and act accodingly (Weberian, field theory) rather than to predict (game theory).

    At any rate, academics and comedians will be in business for awhile longer, even if no one really listens to us except our dedicated fans.

  6. If there is an election, then one thing seems certain. It will be conducted on the basis of constituencies which reflect the population distribution in the year 2000. This is because the Liberals, Labour and the SNP voted not to accept the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commission in 2013. Had this gerrymandering not have occurred, then Mrs May would have entered office with a majority of 32 rather 12. We cannot know how things would have evolved subsequently but I am guessing that we wouldn’t now be facing the prospect of a ‘No Deal’ under Boris Johnson.

  7. Deficit not under control of government dump fiscal rule proposed by SWL and propose real resources as limit.

    All government spending works via crediting bank accounts. Government taxes as cashback, no saving in the spending chain and there would be no deficit. Deficits are caused by net saving desires so are not under control of government. The focus needs to be on real resources limits - for example, in healthcare, ban private healthcare and offer custom jobs to retired doctors, limit qualified doctors. And nothing gets built until this hospital gets built.

    Yours sincerely,

    Kester Pembroke,

  8. yes. Key is the Tories have to contain the threat from The Brexit Party. If they do that, they win. If they don't, a Lib-Dem,/Labour/SNP coalition wins. So No deal and an election shortly after.

    The people who are going to be upset by short-term issues on a No-Deal probably wouldn't vote for Johnson anyway.

  9. I think he will do a GE but in November i.e. first Thursday after 31/10. He's staked his reputation on getting us out then he can say "I have got us out" but with insufficient time for all those ramifications being apparent. Rather like Thatcher after the Falklands. Fixed term Parliament means he could have five years to mop up the mess. I would hazard a guess he is conceited enough not to want to go down in history as a PM who lasted a few months. So the sweet spot is just after crashing out but before the lorries start to stack up at Dover and the medicine runs out.

    1. The disaster will strike quickly. The truck flow through Dover and the Chunnel is about 5,000 a day each way. Assume that UK customs and immigration checks are simply abandoned until the election to limit the damage (a great opportunity BTW for Kurdish people-smugglers). That leaves the outgoing trucks. French immigration and customs will be facing a completely new situation with untrained staff, processing many trucks with the wrong paperwork. They would be doing well to process 1000 trucks on 1 November. The remaining 4,000 would just back up on the M2 and M20 or be diverted to soggy temporary truck parks in Kent. On November 2 the backlog doubles to 8,000. On the French side, the trucks that usually bring back imports (medicines, fruit and veg) are stuck in Kent, so the incoming truck flow crashes in 2 days. It gets dangerously chaotic very fast, and major disruption will be visible even by Thursday 7 November.

      Macron has no incentive to help Boris out, and will do the minimum to avoid taking the blame for the mess. The rules his Customs apply are EU ones, and he genuinely has little discretion about enforcing them. The "politique du pire" is almost always a bad move against domestic opposition, but Boris is a foreign troublemaker.

    2. Macron's position is interesting. On the one hand he would like what is generally a neo-liberal ally, Britain, in the EU. On the other hand, Britain has been a major problem for the EU for decades, especially for Franco-German leadership. Had it been Delors. Kohl, or Mitterand, old style European centralists and socialists, they would have been very happy with Brexit.

  10. Is there any chance that letting no deal happen is best for the country. I feel like we will never be able to move on from this hell of the last 3 years. If we cancel Brexit it will only embolden Farage further. But if we do leave with No Deal, it will either be not that bad or it will be so bad that the debate is finished and so are the Tory party along with Farage and we could at least mend some of the relationships with Europe. I'm not an accelerationist but I just don't see how we ever move on when the Brexit Party, Lib Dems and the Tories will consistently use it as cover for their complete lack of vision and policies for the future of the country, we will be stuck debating the EU as the world burns.

  11. One thing you have failed to mention is the party conference season. Johnson's narcissism suggests he needs his party conference which is 29 Sept to 2 Oct. If/when he calls an election it is likely to be immediately after that.

  12. Just curious but isn't it likely that the effects of a crash-out will begin well before the 31st? What is the likely time frame in which expectations become controlling?

  13. I think a 24 October or 31 Oct/1 Nov GE is most likely. This means Parliament is dissolved most the way through October when any last minute amendments to Brexit can happen. Any later than 1 November & the negative impacts of Brexit become clear to the public. The Tories are most likely to disarm the Brexit party by pushing on with their Brexit plans & undermining their raison d'etre. To extend the deadline beyond 31 Oct would lead to shrieks of "betrayal" from Farage & his party & might bolster their support
    We know there are rumours Boris looking to porouge Parliament in Sept. What better way to close Parliament for 5 weeks in Sept & Oct than a GE campaign??

  14. I think Boris wants a no confidence vote prior to Oct 31st, so that Corbyn can ask the EU for a further extension, whilst an election is held.

    There are two reasons why he would want this. Firstly, it enables him to run a two-string election campaign. ‘Real Brexit’ vs ‘no Brexit/nominal Brexit’ but also ‘a short period of ‘Brexit uncertainty’ versus ‘a long period of Brexit uncertainty’ (under Labour). The reality is that many swing voters do not have a preference on Brexit either way but they wish to put the issue to bed as quickly as possible. Secondly, Boris might lose the election but at least Brexit becomes some else’s problem. If, as seems more likely, he wins then he is in a far stronger negotiating position with the EU. Clearly whilst we remain in the EU, Boris will legitimately veto any EU spending plans that might increase our divorce bill. More generally, Mrs May agreed not to interfere in EU affairs in return for an extension, but Boris doesn’t need to be so compliant. He could veto what he wishes and he could refuse to leave the room when the other EU leaders want to discuss Brexit. Basically, if the EU wanted to progress during the period whilst Boris is Prime Minister, then they would need to make it worthwhile for him to leave.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.