18. April 2017

General Election 2017: an act of sensational theatre

The supposedly cautious Theresa May has staged an act of sensational political theatre. May’s decision to call a general election on 8th June transforms all short-term assumptions about the state of the political parties and Brexit. The outcome of the election may well change beyond recognition the political landscape in the longer term too.

Until recently, May was adamant in public that she saw no need for an early election. She meant it. She was not being duplicitous. But several factors have changed her mind.

May began to have genuine doubts about whether her plans for Brexit could be delivered in a House of Commons where she has a smaller majority than John Major when he struggled to pass the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. Most of her cabinet has been urging her to call an election for some time. Recently, the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, discussed with her the fiscal constraints arising from commitments made by David Cameron and George Osborne in the 2015 election and how an early election would be a release. Both found the enforced U-turn on the budget an unexpected trauma. They were compelled to make the U-turn on a planned tax rise for the self-employed because they had reneged on a 2015 manifesto commitment. May also worried about whether parts of her domestic programme, such as the introduction of grammar schools, would be blocked on the same grounds – that they were not part of the 2015 manifesto. Likewise, she may also seek a mandate to be more radical on health service reform, but will be cautious not to appear in any way “anti-NHS”.

But of course opinion polls have played their part in her U-turn. When a governing party has a lead of more than 20 points, and a new leader has at least the excuse to seek a personal mandate, the temptation can be overwhelming. The Queen was informed yesterday. Senior ministers and some staff at party HQ were told last night. A key figure in the Conservatives’ 2015 victory, Lynton Crosby, has been hired for the campaign along with polling expert, Mark Textor. Significantly, Conservative HQ will also employ again the same smart social media team that arguably made a decisive difference in 2015. The Conservatives were well ahead of Labour in targeting key voters on Facebook and other social media at the last election.

As well as giving a big lead for the Conservatives, some polls also suggest that support for Brexit has increased since the referendum. They need to be interpreted with a degree of caution. When various forms of Brexit are put to voters there are different responses. Polls show a majority of voters support curbs on free movement, but most voters also want no risks taken with the economy. Yet risks are unavoidable if free movement is significantly curtailed and access to the single market becomes punitively limited. We are back to the debate that dominated the referendum a year ago.

There are therefore some risks for May in making her dramatic move. Unusually, this will largely be a single-issue campaign. Brexit will dominate. The last time a Prime Minister called an early election on a single issue was when Edward Heath, in February 1974, posed the question: “Who governs?” in his battle with the miners. He lost the election, at least in terms of seats. But Heath faced a far more formidable opponent in Harold Wilson and, although ahead in the polls when he called that election, was nowhere near as far ahead as May is now.

Even so, do not underestimate how nerve-wracking this decision will have been. May calls an election when she could have ruled for another three years and when she cannot tell voters what form Brexit will take.

May’s decision will have an immediate impact on Brexit. The Brexit Secretary David Davis planned to begin negotiations with senior representatives of the EU Commission next month, in effect a negotiation about what form the negotiation would take. These meetings will be very tentative now and may not take place until after the election. At the moment, elections are taking place or due to take place in the UK, France and Germany. In effect, significant talks are delayed until September, by which time we will know the identity of the new French president and whether Merkel and May are still in power. In theory at least, there could be new leaders in all three countries. It is possible also that May has calculated it is easier to win an election now rather than at the end of the negotiation when Brexit may involve the UK paying a large sum to the EU and a series of transitional arrangements that will mean the UK is still deeply engaged with the EU even if formally outside.

The election is a very big moment for the other parties. I have spoken to several Labour MPs with substantial majorities who are worried they could lose their seats based on current opinion polls. The Liberal Democrats could perform well in terms of votes on a clear anti-Brexit platform, but their best chance of gaining seats is in the South West, a region that supported Brexit in the referendum. The SNP will almost sweep the board again but May will regard a general election victory as a mandate for her insistence that there can be no referendum in Scotland until after Brexit. For UKIP the timing could not be worse. At this junction, Brexit supporters are likely to vote Conservative rather than for a demoralised UKIP.

Labour will seek to make much of May’s U-turn. There are endless quotes from her about why there was no need for an early election. They will be broadcast regularly over the next twenty-four hours. But a row about the timing of an election is often forgotten when the formal campaign begins. Labour will also attempt to frame the debate as one between soft Brexit and hard Brexit.

To varying degrees all the main opposition parties, except UKIP, will argue that a vote for them will mean the UK remains a member of the single market and the customs union, or as close to membership as it is possible to get. But May will have the enthusiastic support of most newspapers and faces Jeremy Corbyn, wholly untested in an election campaign he did not expect to face so soon.

This will be a relatively short campaign and a lot will happen before the formal beginning. This parliament, the shortest since the one elected in February 1974, will have to be formally dissolved. The motion tomorrow to call the election will show that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, passed in the last parliament, is easily unfixed. The main opposition party cannot be seen blocking an election.

If the Conservatives win a big majority, the business community can at least plan for one party to dominate until 2022 – but will also face the possibility of a parliament that is more willing to back a ‘no deal’ or hard Brexit.

In the meantime, many MPs are in a state of sudden anguish. How do Labour MPs who warned last summer that Corbyn was a disaster now argue that he should be Prime Minister? How do anti-Brexit Tory MPs (Nicky Morgan, Anna Soubry) campaign for what might be taken as a mandate for a hard Brexit? What does George Osborne do, stand for another parliament and edit the Standard or step down from one of those jobs? Even the Speaker, John Bercow, is in agonies having pledged to make this parliament his last on the assumption he would be in post until 2020.

The dutiful, dogged May has launched a political rocket. The unexpected announcement today has changed politics irrespective of what happens next.

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