UK Elections 2019
A Quick Guide
On 31st October, the British Parliament, owing to disagreements in the House of Commons about Brexit, passed legislation to make provision for a snap general election. Resultantly, The United Kingdom is going to have a general election on December 12. These national votes, to choose a government to run the country, are supposed to be held every five years. But this would be the third since 2015.
British voters are heading to the polls for the fourth time in less than five years, after lawmakers backed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s gamble to break the country’s crippling political deadlock and hold an election on December 12, two weeks before Christmas. Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about the election.
Why an election now?
Since former Prime Minister Theresa May’s disastrous gamble on a snap election in 2017 deprived her of a working majority in the House of Commons, Britain has been in a political standstill. That result prevented Mrs May from passing her Brexit deal three times and dealt Johnson a series of defeats over his own Brexit strategy. PM Johnson came to the conclusion that the only way out of the impasse was to hold an early vote in an attempt to seek a parliamentary majority to enact his Brexit plan as a success in it would make passing legislation, specifically his Brexit bill, through the House of Commons much easier. Opposition MPs finally backed his call on 31st October, on the fourth time of asking, after Britain’s third Brexit extension gave the country time to sort out its future.
How does voting work?
In a general election, the UK’s 46 million voters are invited to choose an MP for their area – one of 650 constituencies. Anyone aged 18 or over can vote, as long as they are registered and a British citizen or qualifying citizen of the Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland.
How are the winners chosen?
The candidate with the most votes in each constituency is elected to the House of Commons. To win, they simply need more votes than anyone they are standing against. They could receive fewer than half of the votes in their constituency.
Who do the voters elect?
In the UK, voters don’t elect a prime minister directly. Instead, they elect a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent their local constituency. A total of 650 people will be chosen as members of Parliament (MPs) to the House of Commons, one of the two chambers of Parliament in London, where the government is based.
Who can stand for Parliament?
Most people over 18 on polling day can stand as a candidate – as long as they are a British citizen or a qualifying Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizen resident in the UK.
They must also pay a £500 deposit, which will be lost if they do not get at least 5% of the votes in their constituency.
Candidates must meet certain conditions – prisoners, civil servants, judges and members of the police and armed forces cannot stand.
How is government formed?
Most MPs represent a political party but some stand for election as independent candidates. The political party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons at a general election usually forms the new government. Its leader becomes Prime Minister. That means a party needs to win 326 seats to form a majority government. If no group meets that number, the party with the most seats can seek the support of smaller parties, either to join in an official coalition.
How is the Prime Minister elected?
The Prime Minister is chosen by the winning party’s MPs and appointed by the Queen, who is duty bound to follow their advice.
The monarch’s appointment of the Prime Minister is guided by constitutional conventions. The Prime Minister appoints ministers who work in government departments. The most senior of these attend Cabinet meetings.
What are the issues?
Brexit has turned into a tussle for the soul of the country, so it’s no surprise to learn that it will take center stage throughout the campaign. The main parties all have drastically different proposals on the matter; the Conservatives will tout Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU and claim they can get Brexit “done,” while Labour will negotiate a softer Brexit before giving the public the final say in a second referendum.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, want to scrap Brexit altogether, and the Brexit Party are pursuing a no-deal split.
But close watchers of British politics will recall that the 2017 poll was supposed to be all about Brexit too — in reality, voters care about other issues as well.
So, is it a Brexit election?
The immediate cause of the election is the inability of the current British Parliament to agree on how to proceed with Brexit.
Having given its notice to leave the European Union back in 2017, the UK has only ever had three options: leaving with a deal, leaving without a deal or not leaving at all. But, among MPs, there has been no clear majority in favour of any of those. About the only thing that they have consistently agreed upon is that no-deal is not an acceptable outcome – although that hasn’t proven to be the same thing as opting for one of the other options. The political differences over Brexit have been made starker by the relatively strong showing in recent EU elections of the Liberal Democrats, which wants to remain in the EU, and the Brexit Party, which wants to leave without a deal. In short, there are now some important and distinct choices on offer over Brexit, so it is easy to assume people might be moved to make that their main grounds for picking a party.
Will this vote break the Brexit deadlock?
In Britain’s fractured political climate, little is certain.
The rise of smaller parties means the possibility of a hung parliament is greater now than in previous decades. If the 2019 election goes the same way as those in 2010 and 2017, and fails to deliver a party with an overall majority, Brexit could go in a number of different directions.
A hung parliament with a minority Conservative government would likely mean more of the same paralysis that has dogged British politics for the past year. Johnson would likely be forced to try again to get his Brexit deal through Parliament, with no guarantee of success.
If Labour emerges as the largest party, that makes a second Brexit referendum more likely, given that’s also the ambition of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party.
And even if the Conservatives won a majority on the back of their promise to “get Brexit done,” the saga won’t be over. Johnson would be able to get his deal through Parliament by the next deadline — January 31 — but that’s only the start. Months of negotiations with the EU would follow about a future trading partnership, and the risk of a no-deal Brexit could return all over again if a trade deal isn’t concluded by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020.
So while this vote will likely set a new Brexit course for Britain, it would be naive to think the issue will be off the agenda by the new year.
Brexit: future scenarios
What happens next on Brexit would depend on the outcome of that election.
- Implement the deal
One option is to implement the Brexit deal that Boris Johnson has negotiated with the EU. A new version of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would have to be introduced in the new Parliament – and go back to the beginning of its passage through Parliament.
The aim would be to get the bill completed in time for Brexit on 31 January. This is the Conservatives’ plan.
- Another referendum
There could also be another referendum although it would certainly require a further Brexit delay. The referendum could have the same legal status as the one in 2016. It would be advisory, and the government would have to decide how to respond once the result was known.
An alternative would be to hold a so-called “confirmatory” referendum. That would be between a particular Brexit deal and remain – or possibly with no deal as an option. The result of this kind of referendum would be legally binding.
Either way, the new referendum would require legislation to be held. There would also have to be time for the Electoral Commission to consider the question wording – especially if it’s a referendum with more than two options. It may take a minimum of 22 weeks.
- No-deal Brexit
The default position will be that if no deal is passed by Parliament, the UK will leave the EU without one on 31 January 2020. Leaving without a deal (or withdrawal agreement) means the UK would immediately exit the customs union and single market – arrangements designed to make trade easier.
- Cancel Brexit
There is also the legal option of cancelling Brexit altogether by revoking Article 50.
But clearly, this is not something the current government is contemplating – so it’s only really possible to imagine this outcome after a change of government.
Did You Know?
The Queen is the UK’s head of state, although she is not in charge of the government. Elizabeth II is the country’s longest-serving monarch, having ascended to the throne in 1952. She performs state duties, which include formally opening Parliament, representing the country at events such as the annual Remembrance Day parade, and making official visits overseas. She is also head of the armed forces and Church of England.
What is a no-deal Brexit?
In a no-deal scenario, the UK would immediately leave the European Union (EU) with no agreement about the “divorce” process. Overnight, the UK would leave the single market and customs union – arrangements designed to help trade between EU members by eliminating checks and tariffs (taxes on imports). No deal also means immediately leaving EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice and Europol, its law enforcement body. Membership of dozens of EU bodies that govern rules on everything from medicines to trade marks would end. And the UK would no longer contribute to the EU budget – currently about £9bn a year. Under both former Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal and successor Boris Johnson’s deal there would be a transition period until the end of 2020. This is to provide some breathing space, maintaining much of the status quo, while the two sides try to negotiate a trade deal.
Can the UK cancel Brexit?
Cancelling Brexit would involve revoking something called Article 50. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling last year confirmed that the UK could revoke Article 50 itself, without having to ask the other 27 EU countries for permission. This could be done by writing a letter to the European Council, made up of EU heads of state. The ECJ said the UK would then remain a member of the EU on the same terms – as it has now – including keeping its budget rebate (the discount applied to the UK’s contributions to the EU budget). But it did set some conditions.
The ruling said revocation should be “unequivocal and unconditional”, suggesting that the UK could not simply revoke Article 50 in order to buy more time and then resubmit it at a later date.