It’s long been seen as the “nuclear option”: a way to end the Brexit deadlock and bring the crisis under control. It could make things worse.
A radical new plan is being considered to bring the Brexit crisis under control - but no one can be certain what the outcome will be if the so-called “nuclear option” of a snap election is used.
After another day of chaos at Westminster, members of Theresa May’s government are now war gaming the possibility of calling a new election and asking the public to elect a new parliament.
The last time Mrs May gambled with a snap poll, in 2017, she lost her narrow majority in the House of Commons. That has made getting her Brexit deal through parliament almost impossible and even day-to-day governing has become difficult.
But another humiliating defeat in parliament on Monday night (local time) has caused the faltering prime minister and her allies to again consider going to the polls much earlier than the scheduled May 2020 date.
The Commons voted 329-302 to support an amendment that allowed parliament to take control of the Brexit process and be able to set the Commons agenda tomorrow. This not only is a major change in parliamentary procedure, it potentially could set the UK on a path towards a soft Brexit - that is where the UK remains closer to the EU than the government would like, possibly still within the single market or the customs union.
It is the first time in more than 100 years the government has lost control of what happens in the House of Commons. The “indicative votes” are not legally binding, but backbenchers could grab power again at a later time and try and force them to be.
Even if they don’t, Mrs May will come under pressure to support the will of parliament.
That is why the previously unthinkable snap election is being seriously considered.
If MPs impose a Brexit on the government they cannot support, it could be the only way to stop the collapse of the government or an accidental no-deal Brexit. It also could stem the loss of support for the Conservatives, which is at risk of shrinking further as the public tire of the Brexit debate and uncertainty.
Mrs May told MPs before the amendment was passed she would allow a similar series of votes to be held, but controlled by the government, and urged them not to seize control of the process.
Doing so “would overturn the balance of our democratic institutions” she warned - but then three junior ministers quit to join 29 other Conservative rebels in ignoring her pleas and voting with opposition parties to back the amendment.
Mrs May did not respond immediately to the defeat but a government spokesman said it was “disappointing”.
“This amendment instead up-ends the balance between our democratic institutions and sets a dangerous, unpredictable precedent for the future.
“While it is now up to parliament to set out next steps in respect of this amendment, the government will continue to call for realism – any options considered must be deliverable in negotiations with the EU. Parliament should take account of how long these negotiations would take, and if they’d require a longer extension which would mean holding European parliamentary elections.”
The Brexit options that could be debated tomorrow include:
• Staying in the customs union
• A second Brexit referendum
• Revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit
• A Canada-style trade deal
• Common market deal by staying in the single market (similar to the European Economic Area)
If the UK does go down the snap election path, it would be the third election in four years - UK elections are normally held every five years. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act means only a super majority of 75 per cent can approve holding a snap poll. But Labour have been calling for a general election for months, so that is not expected to be an issue.
The election could come either through the PM losing a no-confidence vote, or by calling a snap poll herself in a bid to get public support for her deal and avoid a long delay to Brexit.
Ministers fear that if Mrs May doesn’t take the initiative, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could replace her in No.10 Downing St within weeks.
A source told the Daily Mail: “We’ll either lose a confidence vote - in which case you could even get Corbyn without an election - or we will be forced to go for an election ourselves.”
Another insider added: “It’s not just scaremongering, it’s the only way out of this.”
The PM has also fallen out with her DUP allies which are crucial to upholding her majority in parliament. that is also hampering her ability to get her Brexit Withdrawal Agreement through the House.
One possibility is rebel Conservative MPs and the DUP might fall into line after the Commons endorses a softer Brexit. If that happens by April 12, then the UK will leave the EU on May 22 with a deal.
if not, it risks crashing out without one or they will have to request a much longer extension from the EU.
Both options do not command a majority, adding to the dilemma the prime minister is in.
The UK was due to leave the EU on Friday night but an extension was granted after the deal Mrs May negotiated over two years with the EU was twice heavily rejected by parliament.
She has indicated she will attempt a third time to get it to pass, but has conceded there still isn’t enough support for it to be unsuccessful.