UK Election 2019: Why is this election happening?

(Title Image: Sky News)

State of Wales’ coverage of the 2019 UK General Election starts today.

I don’t know how this is going to affect my output on Senedd Home, but it could mean I have to be selective in what I cover from Cardiff Bay for the rest of the year – though I’m not expecting any major problems.

The election also means I don’t expect to return to State of Wales properly until next March at the earliest – maybe not until the Police & Crime Commissioner elections in April/May – because this is already far more work than I was expecting to do in one year. I originally planned for around 20-25 posts annually on State of Wales since changing the format at the start of 2019, but it’s going to be closer to 65. I need a break.

Most of my coverage is going to focus on the election in Wales, but I thought it was worth starting with a bit of an explainer as to why we’re having the first December election for almost 100 years.

Boris dies in a ditch: Why an election in 2019 was always on the cards

This process arguably started way back in January-March when Theresa May tried (and failed) to get her Brexit deal through the UK Parliament. The fact it was rejected three times and also led to an unsuccessful motion of no confidence (as the House of Commons took control of the Brexit process) more than hinted that the UK’s unwritten constitution and political system was at breaking point. Theresa May’s position was untenable and she had no option but to stand down ahead of the EU Parliament Election results in May which were, as expected, dire for the Tories.

After Boris Johnson took over as Tory leader and Prime Minister in July, it was a seeming shift towards a harder form of Brexit, or even leaving the EU without a deal at all. While there were several attempts to trigger a general election, things came to a head with Boris Johnson’s attempt to suspend/prorogue parliament for five weeks during September and October 2019 – effectively preventing the UK Parliament from blocking a No Deal Brexit.

There was just about enough time for the UK Parliament to pass the “Benn Act“, which forces the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Brexit if a deal wasn’t approved by 19th October 2019. This process resulted in 21 Remainer-leaning Tory MPs being expelled from the party for voting against the government, eliminating the Conservative-DUP majority and causing even more political uncertainty.

The decision to suspend/prorogue the UK Parliament was ultimately ruled unlawful by the UK Supreme Court on 24th September 2019. This left Boris Johnson with a choice: break the law to force Brexit through by the end of October, or try to renegotiate a deal. He opted to renegotiate.

The result was a revised Withdrawal Agreement announced on 17th October which made some minor changes to Theresa May’s deal, particularly clauses relating to the UK-Irish border in Northern Ireland and regulatory alignment with EU rules (known as “The Backstop”) – which has been a sticking point for Brexiteer MPs.

With the Benn Act’s 19th October deadline looming, a special Saturday sitting of the House of Commons took place to debate the agreement, with Boris Johnson aiming for the deal to become law in just three days to meet his long-promised 31st October Brexit day.

While the Bill for the new Withdrawal Agreement passed its first vote by 329-299, the three-day timetable was rejected and a vote requesting a delay to Brexit until 31st January was passed. Having said he would rather “die in a ditch” than let the October deadline slip, Boris Johnson was forced to request an extension or risk breaking the law.

The bad blood between MPs (including those in the same party), the never-ending debates on the timing and format of Brexit and rising public anger at the inability of MPs to get anything done brought the entire Westminister machine to a grinding stalemate which had to be broken one way or another.

The only solution other than a second Brexit referendum (which would takes months to prepare for) was a snap election.

The process of triggering an election

In 2011, the UK Parliament passed the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which means that for a general election to take place outside a five-year window, either two-thirds of MPs have to vote for an early general election, or the government has to lose a vote of no confidence and MPs have to be unable to agree on an alternative government within 14 days.

The UK Government tried and failed three times under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to trigger a general election – on 3rd September, 10th September (just before parliament was unlawfully suspended) and 28th October.

In order to get around this – and in light of a sudden change of heart by the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn – a specific law triggering the election (originally an idea from the SNP and Liberal Democrats which was pooh-poohed at the time) was introduced on 29th October, setting the date at 12th December. This law was overwhelmingly passed by 438-20 and it’s the first time a UK General Election has been ordered this way.

Interestingly, seven Welsh MPs (3 Plaid, 4 Labour) were amongst the twenty who voted against calling an election.

What’s coming up at State of Wales?

Over the next four/five weeks, I’ll look at some of the key issues at the election (starting on Friday), will summarise the party manifestos (if/when they’re published), offer a round-up of some of the multi-party debates taking place (I’m ignoring the Johnson-Corbyn head-to-heads) – at least one of which will be a Wales-specific multi-party debate – and will look at some of the more keenly-contested seats in Wales.

There’ll be a brief round-up of the results and implications on 13th December, with a more detailed party-by-party analysis of the Welsh results on or by 16th December.

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