The impact of another General Election on the Brexit process


26th July 2019

The Polling from The Humours of an Election series, by William Hogarth, 1755 (Source: Wikipedia)


Yesterday this blog averred that the new Cabinet was not one that one could expect to implement policy effectively.

The day before this blog set out that the same three options of deal, no deal and revoke remain, and that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union by automatic operation of law on 31st October 2019 unless

  • the current deal becomes acceptable (unlikely),
  • there is a revised deal (also unlikely),
  • there is revocation of the process (the right thing to do, as the approach so far has been botched, but again unlikely), or
  • there is yet another extension (not in the gift of the United Kingdom, and the new Prime Minister is explicitly against this).

And before then, this blog explained that “ruling out a No Deal Brexit” was myth and cannot be done unless a deal is accepted or Article 50 is revoked.


This is a law and policy blog, not a political one. 

But, for completeness, I should explain the difference a possible general election would have on the options above.

A general election would make no difference to the options above.

(At least not directly.)

Whatever the result of a general election (and only a fool would predict the result given the rush of unexpected political events we have had in the last few years), the wording of Article 50 stays the same, the current deal remains on the table, there is no real prospect of a modified deal before 31st October 2019, and extensions will remain outside the United Kingdom’s control.

To paraphrase Edmund Blackadder, “after the chaos of a general election, we [will] return to [ab]normal”. 

The same few choices for the United Kingdom will be there the morning after, and the United Kingdom will just have wasted more time.

The only (indirect) difference is that an extension would be likely for the purpose of a general election.


This, however, is to take a strict law and policy perspective.  

Of course, in political terms, a general election can change everything: one can envisage a new administration headed by a Labour or Liberal Democrat, or even a coalition of the able and sensible from all parties (imagine that). 

And this in turn could mean a fundamental shift in Brexit policy (and imagine that).

The same law and policy choices would be there, but there could also be a fresh political approach (and just imagine that).


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26 thoughts on “The impact of another General Election on the Brexit process”

  1. The one ‘ringing’ phrase that rules them all:
    – Third time’s a charm.

    1 – February 1st 2017; cross Party will for Brexit.
    2 – June 8th 2017; all Party will for Brexit.
    3 – Autumn 2019; [ditto?]

    Ergo, the sunlit uplands of late 2019 will be ‘no-deal+’.

    Usually I am against a simplistic current-trajectory-projection. But, as there is no change in Party Politics, there is nothing more likely than more of the same.

    Oh, almost forgot; there is the EU.

  2. Watching the recent moon landing retrospectives, one of the control room team commented that at a particular stage they reached a point with only three options. Land, crash or abort. This situation is similar. Landing is only possible with the WA, which seems highly unlikely. We either take the decision to abort, which again has a time limit, or we crash.

    The Apollo mission would have learned a lot even if the two astronauts had been lost 50 years ago. I have no doubt that eventually people would have returned to the moon and landed successfully. Aldrin and Armstrong would have been remembered. But the glory would have gone to someone else.

    I don’t see Johnson wanting to be the crashed astronauts. No glorious failure for him. I hope I am not over optimistic.

    1. Ever since David Davis compared implementing Brexit to the “NASA Moon shot” I’ve been trying to get people to understand that NASA spent years analysing empirical data, calculating their desired trajectories in minute detail, preparing alternatives for every imaginable eventuality (planned or otherwise), building in margins for error and back-up systems, and training and rehearsing procedures to handle unexpected emergencies.

      Where the comparison is painfully apposite is that, like the moon landing, Brexit is fundamentally a one-shot mission!
      If you completely f@&% up your approach, the available resources of time and opportunity are strictly limited and you don’t simply get to sail round automatically for another attempt, like using up another life in a video game. You absolutely don’t get to float aimlessly around in space for some incalculable period while hoping that somebody else will find and offer a way to resolve the issues you have so resolutely refused to foresee or address.

      But the Brexit story is now more Apollo 13 than Apollo 11: the oxygen tank has now exploded rendering the Support Module useless and the advertised mission impossible. The Brexit difference from this analogy is that, rather than pulling in all available resources to recalculate possible outcomes with the utmost urgency in order to save the lives of the astronauts, Mission Control, primarily concerned with its own prestige and public image, is merely letting the mission drift on with unchanged goals towards the vague hope that some impossible miracle will salvage their dignity, regardless even of the extent to which the explosion has blown it off the previous trajectory;
      its energies are chiefly devoted to replacing key personnel (mainly with people previously rejected as being unqualified or demonstrably unsuitable for operational roles) and to debating who was to blame.

  3. Opinions on what will happen next are ten a penny, but one interesting opinion I heard last night on tv was as follows:

    The UK will leave the EU by operation of law on the 31st October. Thus fulfilling Mr. Johnson’s promise.

    That the transition period would be extended to 5 years – giving time to work out a new free trade agreement between the UK and EU. And therefore kicking the Irish backstop down the road for another five years.

    I think it was someone from the Institute of Policy Studies in London who gave the opinion.

    From this side of the Irish Sea ( the Dublin side ) this seems like a sensible outcome.

    However, the only downside I can see would be the complaints of ardent Brexiteers about having to make 5 more years of EU budget contributions.

    1. If we are leaving by automatic operation of law on 31st Oct that must mean by way of no deal – as it’s unlikely any other deal will be ratified before then. There will then be no ‘transition phase’ to extend. We will then need to beg the EU, probably while we are in recession, for a deal. That will require the backstop.

    2. The driving force in UK politics is The Brexit Party. Currently, it splits the anti-EU vote neatly between the Tories and TBP. Remain is mainly split between the LDs and Labour, hence about 25% each.

      The key to Johnson’s strength in the Tory Party is that if he delivers Brexit, then he nullifies TBP and can deliver a majority at an election against a divided LD/Lab opposition. Conversely, anyone stopping Johnson risks driving the Tories into obscurity so apart from a few
      MPs who have gone bonkers such as Grieve and Boles they aren’t going to do it. Labour aren’t in a hurry to precipitate a GE which will see them decimated at the ballot box either.

      As a Leaver, I may be persuaded by an extended transition. What has been frustrating over the last three years has been a Remain establishment trying to negotiate a different form of EU membership. A government which believes in a strong independent international UK out of the EU is a much better proposition and one I would vote for, and give time to.

      As for Ireland, I’m not over bothered. Quite why, on an archipelago of about 70 million people, the 4 million people who live in the republic should have an effective veto denied to, say, the 4 million in the West midlands, the 4 million in Yorkshire etc etc is not obvious to me. I don’t wish Ireland any harm, but I’m not interested in going out of my way to satisfy that particular 4 million, or else all that UK politics will be about is breakaway groups of 4 million allying with countries off the islands to hold each other to ransom. There is no good future in that.

      1. Therein lies the crux of the problem. You can look at like 4 million people dictating the terms of the UK’s departure, or you could look at it as:

        If the UK wants access to the EU club’s facilities from outside the EU ( export market and so forth ), then it will have to accept the terms and conditions set by the club.

        If the UK wants to help set the terms and conditions of the club, then it will have to remain in the club.

        1. ‘Are you content to let Scotland become independent again?’.

          I don’t think it is in the interests of England to have an independent Scotland. The last time they were independent France used them as a base to exert pressure on England. It is the responsibility of England to offer the Scots a deal good enough for them to want to stay in the UK.

          For me, as an Englishman, there is also the issue that independence is a free option to Scotland. If leaving works, they keep the benefit. If it doesn’t work, I will have to bail them out. This is because there isn’t any practical way of preventing Scots from coming south to England, hence rampant poverty in Scotland will have to be bailed out by England.

      2. “As for Ireland, I’m not over bothered. Quite why, on an archipelago of about 70 million people, the 4 million people who live in the republic should have an effective veto denied to”

        They don’t have a veto: the situation is that the UK has made commitments to people and other countries in international treaties registered with the UN. It has also effectively made other (very high profile) commitments through its promises about how it intends to fulfil those treaty commitments.

        Now, either the country intends to uphold those commitments, or it will have to admit that the most crucial elements of what they have promised were simply blather intended to stave off the government of the day’s latest essay crisis, or to persuade the gullible that they should be allowed to continue without grown-up supervision. This at a time when the UK is about to begin renegotiating from scratch every single arrangement that enables it to trade with the rest of the world, an absurd operation for which it is hopelessly ill-prepared (except as regards its supply of wildly unrealistic expectations) and is starting by casting itself into a position of extreme weakness.

        Why would another country be in any hurry to engage with such an erratic partner, let alone to bind itself to close involvement?
        In addition, we know specifically that the US Congress will not ratify any progress on future relations unless the GFA is guaranteed to be protected to Ireland’s satisfaction.

        Denying the realities of the situation in NI may make you feel better about the impossibility of the hopelessly unrealistic futures you have been sold without any credible explanation of how they could be realised, but you will still have to deal with the reso of the world who are in no way obliged to share your illusions.

        But you are clearly already well into “blame someone else” territory:
        “What has been frustrating over the last three years has been a Remain establishment trying to negotiate a different form of EU membership.”

        1. there is nothing in the GFA that says we need to keep an open border, and there isn’t an open border now. All this is just empty bluster.

          When you make statements like this, instructing naughty children to do as their betters tell them, do you fully understand the insulting way you are behaving to millions of people and the rage you provoke in them? Once I can be taxed and governed without my consent then there will be a never-ending queue of peoples and nations who decide that I need to pay them what they demand and do as they say.

      3. While Brexit was the democratic choice of the UK, it’s not without consequences within a context of international law and the long, sometimes (very) bloody history between the islands.

        It’s a regrettable fact that a consequence of British policy in Ireland over the centuries had been much violence. The GFA put an end to much of that; but peace is a process and not a destination.

        It’s against that very real existential threat – breaking the peace process and risking a return to bloodshed – that Ireland is entitled to ensure the UK’s departure creates as little endangerment to the flesh and blood inhabitants of the island as possible.

        It’s also worth repeating that the current backstop was an EU compromise to placate UK red lines, that NI voted to remain in the EU and that Ireland isn’t trying to stop Brexit; but it is trying to avoid a return to devastating civil war.

        The UK can leave by all means; that it’s sovereign right. But excersinf that right is neither consequence or obligation free; nor does the UK’s decision give a mandate to damage another sovereign country.

  4. A GE could change everything or nothing. But the likely outcomes are pretty clear. A majority for one party (pretty unlikely) or a hung parliament but in which direction? A brexit tilted hung parliament would solve nothing unless they have a majority- what we have now -or a remain leaning one would be a step toward revocation. A parliament hat was able to agree on the best course of action taking members from across all parties would be the 1940’s reincarnation with a goal in mind – appeal to the headbangers and Possibly apart from the SNP that would get support from all parts of the union.

  5. Did you see Mark Howe’s article yesterday in the Spectator about leaving on GATT terms? Would be interested in your views.

  6. I would guess you’ve read Nick Gutteridge’s thread about the strong current of opinion inside the EU hat perceives May’s deal as making too many concessions to the British.

  7. Sadly unlikely, but revoke is the only one which would stop the insecurity, the gradual slip into recession, the loss of our seat at the top table and the waste of precious resources needed for fighting global issues like climate and far right populism.

    Looking further than the political and legal aspects of the last three years, the in limbo status is taking its toll on the physical and mental health of vulnerable people. Medicine shortages and the pressure of staff leaving the already struggling NHS might cause a humanitarian crisis.

    What price is acceptable for political ambitions?

  8. We can (and should) imagine all sorts. Regardless, there will be no GE in time to have effect upon Brexit. Johnson will not risk calling one simply to aim for a majority. Labour (under Corbyn) will not bring forward a no confidence motion to try to force one.

    As a Remainer, my hope is that everything possible is done to contradict Johnson’s assertion that an exit with no deal would be the EU’s fault and to keep the pressure on him to get Parliament to accept the deal done. If he realises that ploy has failed early enough and Parliament are resolute in resisting an exit with no deal; which even Johnson knows will be extremely damaging and has said he doesn’t want; then, a further referendum may be the only political option available to the Prime Minister. Economic realities after an exit with no deal would reveal the deceit of Brexiteers and the PM and wreck the Conservative & Unionist Party.

    Rather than an imminent GE, it is much more likely that Johnson (and Cummings) will make the case for a referendum with two clear choices on the ballot paper. They would justify the need for this on the basis that the EU won’t negotiate further and Parliament won’t allow a no deal exit but have rejected “May’s” deal. So, only ‘the people’ can decide. One option on the referendum ballot paper will be to exit under the currently available deal the other choice will be either ‘Remain’ or ‘Exit with No Deal’. It is anyone’s guess which they will risk as the second choice.

    1. ….but automatic operation of the law? Putting remain on any second (third) referendum would be an admission of defeat. Unthinkable.

  9. Dominic Cummings certainly has the smarts to plan and win a General Election campaign (assuming his Tory actors stay on script and that Labour continues to shuffle sideways under Corbyn).
    This GE would probably be fought against background of ‘Do Or Die’ becoming frustrated and with the essentual tactic of blaming everyone else, not least Labour, Lib Dems and EU.
    A GE victory might give Johnson a flimsy mandate for mayhem but I still can’t believe he’d use it. More likely seems a parking of the (big red) bus, seeking an extended standstill on present trading arrangements (and contributions) to allow a future relationship to be thrashed out making the backstop redundant. In the end it will be BINO, as always seemed most likely.
    In the meantime, there is a ready made gauge for the ongoing progress of the Do Or Die project – by marking the point at which Cummings chooses to step away from it.

  10. I had thought that the appointment of the Vote Leave team of shysters en masse meant that we were surely in for an early General Election. But then the apparent appointment of Gove to prepare for no deal and Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House would appear to indicate that they are preparing for both a General Election and a No Deal exit. It would appear that preparations have been underway for a long while now – why else would have an undisclosed party have spent a fortune on No Deal adverts on Facebook?

    The likelihood of a No Deal exit has jumped.

    I simply don’t see the urgency or the organisation on the “No No Deal” side, now that the full picture of what has been going on has been unveiled. At the centre of this opposition is the black hole of inactivity that is the Labour leadership team. They appear to be as committed as the hard-right nutters to lead us into a Brexit Valhalla.

    I hope Swinson, Lucas, Hammond, Starmer, Campbell and all are getting their act together, for time is short, far, far too short.

  11. Brexit was about ‘Sovereignty’ and the UK being ‘more in control’, though there never was any manifesto over who would provided extra control over what, or how. It was always pure UK politics. Changing the UK politics is not likely to influence the EU for the better since the UK will have no channel to argue for UK improvements so the only outcome is no change or no EU change to our advantage. The UK still has reached no UK agreement of what extra Sovereignty is supposed to deliver at what cost, nor even how such a consensus should be achieved.
    An outcome based on current laws and agreements can be the only way out, changing UK politics only affects the UK side.

  12. I always value and almost always agree with what you write, but ‘everything is political’. ‘Law and policy’ will not cut it, esp. as Brexit is a paradigm e.g. of the former being in some ways a specialist branch of the latter ( Think Yale Sociological and even Realist Schools). You are one of the few sticking yo
    ur head above the parapet/defying the Mob (unlike the Met., etc). ‘POLICY WITH A HIGH LEGAL CONTENT’, perhaps? Glen

  13. Whilst I agree with your analysis, there is a factor that you have overlooked: the boundless ambition and self-centredness of the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street. There is no doubt in my mind that he would have been an ardent remainer had he thought that was the better path to where he is now (as anybody can tell who saw the look on his face on 24/6/16).
    The PM is likely to be forced into a GE by a vote of no confidence which opens a short 14 day window for the formation of a government of national unity. This is perhaps the nation’s best chance to solve this mess – should enough MPs have the testicular fortitude for such an act of selflessness. The inability of Johnson to call a GE at a time of his own choosing could be a decisivie factor in the Brexit tragedy.

  14. I can see that it may not be possible for parliament to stop the automatic operation of the law on 31st October, but could the EU grant another extension in any case if it can see that parliament does not support a no-deal exit?

  15. Thanks for a great read.

    The questions I would have are around whether by-elections might be a more effective option for Parliament to avert No Deal than a VONC/GE?

    I’ve always found the No Deal is better than a Bad Deal rhetoric to have the fixed and variable the wrong way round. Saying that May’s deal is bad because I said so and then shoe horn-ing a No Deal Brexit as ‘better’ – whilst refusing to engage with the difficulties it presents – is governance as an elaborate game of pretend.

    A No Deal Brexit hasn’t been earned and I’m not at all convinced that those promoting know what it means. Here in Shropshire there was a Johnson visit where he told farmers that ‘he did not believe that the EU would apply tariffs to British goods in the event of a No Deal Brexit’. If I were the local MP then what confidence should I have in his No Deal planning for my constituents? He could have stood on a platform of ambiguity, yet he chose outright contradiction. As a practical exercise – leaving aside the politics – what MP could have confidence in his delivery of Brexit?

    I am curious as to whether by-elections might be the answer?

    A group of Tory MPs resign their seats to stand as Independents, which triggers by-elections with the date effectively predetermined by date of resignation? They stand specifically on a pro-Deal platform. Would I be right in thinking that outside Government control?

    Parliament wouldn’t be dissolved and Johnson would need 2/3 to turn those by-elections into a General Election. Parliament still sits, those MPs do not during that time, and it is a countable fact that the PM has no working majority.

    Without the numbers sitting in Parliament, I wonder if that would curtail his opportunity to prorogue because the confidence of the House would be in question throughout and visible to all?

    From what I’ve read, resigning a seat on the 3rd September would mean a by-election(s) around the second week of October?

    Let’s say that happens: what platform does the Conservative candidate stand on? The Brexit Party are No Deal, the Independent is pro-Deal and Johnson’s is a promised deal and a promised No Deal. A local MP with long-standing relationships in their constituency is in a more advantageous position in a by-election than GE. They are known. They have history. Their constituents are being bypassed by Government when Government bypasses Parliament: how are they supposed to represent them? We had executive Government with May and we now have outsourced private provider executive Government with Johnson. What is the point of being an MP if your only value to your leader is that your actual seat allows him to be PM? Why should anyone stand for public office in order to earn the right to govern the country by consent when you could be Mr Cummings and/or Mr Milne and do it without the accountability or hassle of constituency work?

    Politically, I wonder what some Tory MPs have got to lose: in a GE they will be democratically accountable for the Brexit policy of a man who isn’t even in their party – Mr Cummings – who, if it’s like Nick Timothy will write the next Conservative Manifesto and likely have you deselected if you don’t agree to its terms.

    By-elections are drama. No Deal will be scrutinised and so will this Government. What representative democracy means comes into public debate: if all MPs are supposed to do is nod, then what’s the point of Parliament? Why not just appoint a CEO and have them tick off a shopping list? The biggest variable in making a judgement is always time.

    Writing columns, giving speeches or asking awkward Parliamentary questions, as a backbench MP with concerns, does not seem to be effective. The only way to oppose a Government of late seems to be through the courts, which is ‘getting political’ but what choice is left when the ‘it’s only convention’ non-compromise position is taken? Would it be irresponsible to resign now? I don’t think so. The Government is being run by non-party members and likely MPs will have little to do in September/October as Johnson won’t be bringing anything to the Commons. Also, all those VL staffers brought in by Johnson will be precluded from by-election campaigning unless they resign first.

    The mooted ‘people vs politicians’ is more like ‘non-elected lobbyists/commentators/strategists etc .. vs politicians’ – and the latters’ influence is only as far as those elected allow it to be.

    Easy to suggest that MPs resign to avert a No Deal Brexit. They shouldn’t have to, but, then again, Frank Field shouldn’t have had to resign from the Labour Party. This is the position they are being put into by a minority of their colleagues enabling the total undermining of representative democracy.

    However, in the hypothetical situation of a small number of Tory MPs resigning from their party and seat, to stand on a pro-Deal position at the beginning of September, does this increase the probability that Parliament can avert No Deal, against the backdrop of whatever tactical manoeuvering Johnson and Cummings might try? Does it decrease the probability of prorogation and/or Johnson’s ability to bring about a General Election and dissolve Parliament?

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