When will the next general election be?

John Curtice interpreting the 2017 general election

If Theresa May survives the debate on the Queens Speech – and John Curtice is certainly making no predictions – then who knows how long the current government will last?

The UK’s polling guru gives a characteristically pithy summary of what lies ahead: “If you can tell me if and when the government would lose a vote of no confidence, either because of defections, bye-election losses, falling out with the DUP, ministerial planes stuck in the fog in Brussels airport, or all the rest of it, I’ll tell you when the next election is.”

That’s a virtuoso answer to a straight question at an Edinburgh seminar on 14 June, a week after that sensational exit poll result. In something of a scoop, the David Hume Institute secured Professor Curtice to provide an interpretation of the 2017 general election. The full fascinating speech, recorded and illustrated with slides, is available on the David Hume Institute website.

This short podcast focuses on perhaps the hottest questions of the night: when will the next election be and who will win it? [Pause for laughter.]

While unpredictability may be the only certainty of the next parliament, Curtice reminds the audience of a few important facts:

“The first thing you have to remember is that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act [FTPA] is still on the statute book. The DUP will certainly not want to have it taken off if they have any sense. Meanwhile if Jeremy Corbyn has any sense he will not make the mistake he made before 2017 which is to tell the prime minister in advance that he’s willing to have a general election because what the Fixed Term Parliaments Act does is to give the leader of the opposition a veto over whether there is an election.”

Shoe on the other foot

A fascinating outcome of the general election is the return of a much weakened prime minister facing a newly empowered leader of the opposition. But Curtice demolishes any notions that a vote of no confidence in Theresa May might open the door to a minority Labour government leading a ‘rainbow coalition’:

“There is one thing clear and that is that there is only one administration possible in this parliament and that is the conservative-led administration. The Labour Party and SNP and everybody else are just too far away. So if there is a vote of no confidence then under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act we will have to wait ten days to see if anyone else can form an administration and if not we have to move straight on towards an election.”

And – although it was a surge among young voters which helped to propel Jeremy Corbyn into a stronger and more stable position as Labour leader – older voters might cast their minds back to 1976, the last time a minority government held an uneasy grip on power in a hung parliament:

‘We have to remember that Jim Callaghan managed to survive for three years as a serious minority government doing all sorts of wheeling and dealing. Including, by the way, with the Unionists. I mean, people do tend to forget that whoever is in government the first call in this kind of hung parliament is going to be to the Unionists and it doesn’t matter what government it is…’

Hung, drawn and quartered?

Would the redrawing of boundaries persuade Labour to force the issue?

“Well…the boundary commissioners are not obliged to report until October of next year. So it may be the next general election takes place before the boundaries have been redrawn.”

Besides, redrawn boundaries will require the approval of the House of Commons, and reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 will affect both Tory and DUP MPs: “You know I don’t think they will necessarily be desperate for a redrawing of the boundaries in Northern Ireland and the reduction in the number of Northern Irish MPs.”

So in the end – as with Jim Callaghan – it’s likely to come down to ‘accident and erosion’ that produces the vote of no confidence, rather than anyone trying to manoeuvre another election.

And who will win it? Well, that’s another imponderable though the Professor allows himself to ponder. Can Labour retain the enthusiasm of young voters? Can Labour win the centre ground they frankly weren’t attempting to occupy in the last election? After all we must remember that Corbyn did actually lose this election…

“Unless the Labour Party can move the electorate so that more people are concerned about public services etc etc those last few votes could be difficult to get.

“On the other hand if we have another election because the Conservative Party has collapsed, then it might be easy. The Labour Party might just walk it.”

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