Will Theresa May try to call an early general election? With Labour in such obvious disarray and her own Commons majority consisting of just 12 possibly disloyal MPs, the temptation must be obvious.
It’s an open goal, as Tim Montgomerie puts it in the Times(£). He’s not the only one.
My hunch is that the new prime minister will resist that temptation and be right to do so. Contrary to what political activists believe (at least they do for a while), most voters don’t want to be dragged to the polls more than is strictly necessary. They elect other people to worry for them, and the 23 June referendum was quite enough excitement for most.
One survey this week suggested that only one in five voters favour a snap election this autumn or next spring, and I suspect that even the most starry-eyed or ardent supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are not among them. Why bother to seek real power to improve your supporters everyday lives when you can concentrate on capturing Labour’s party machine, eh?
In case you’ve forgotten, May has already ruled out an election. It was part of the straight-talking, new broom shtick that followed her accelerated rise to power after David Cameron’s resignation, the most constructive move towards some semblance of post-Brexit stability we have yet seen.
Until she gives us reason not to, we should take May’s word for it. But that word is no guarantee she won’t change her mind or have it changed by circumstances. As recently as 2007, when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair ( also via “coronation”, not election by either party or country), there was serious talk of him seeking his own mandate.
It drifted for months until George Osborne’s irresponsible inheritance tax (IHT) pledge frightened Brown off the idea that October. As Brown’s consigliere Damian McBride later conceded, I had warned against letting speculation run on so damagingly, because I’d seen it all before when Jim Callaghan made the same mistake and pulled back (“There was I waiting at the church,” he sang at the TUC) only when he realised he’d lose.
But unforeseen controversy over policy – the Brexit strategy and hard versus soft exit is the obvious one – might justify a showdown with May’s perpetual rebels. Grammar schools might be another, since the Tory left know they are a tribal error. A “who governs Britain?” election over much-exaggerated trade union militancy is old-fashioned, and voters gave Ted Heath a raspberry when he tried in 1974.
My sense is that May has seen how Cameron’s appeasement policies don’t work and will be prepared to face the boys down. Good, because someone has to be in charge. Her or the editor of the Daily Mail.
Andrew Rawnsley suspects she might be forced to call an early election. I doubt if any showdown will have to come to such a dramatic head. But it’s risky. There is a Boundary Commission shakeup in the works, one aborted after most of the detail had been done because of a Lib Dem row with Cameron during the coalition. Its proposals, which revive the coalition plan to cut MP numbers from 650 to 600, are due next month.
With rare exceptions, such exercises naturally favour the Tories because their votes pile up inefficiently as people move out of cities to suburbs and small towns, leaving Labour’s concentrated in places such as London. Boundary reviews periodically adjust the consequences with the help of party lawyers and officials seeking tactical advantage. Neglect the process at your peril, leaders learn.
Most polls since May’s succession put the Tories comfortably ahead of Labour, though the Corbyn army insists polls get it wrong, without showing much enthusiasm to test the theory. MPs who oppose Corbyn and do not occupy safe inner-city seats think otherwise.
Combine those polls with favourable boundary changes and the Tory lead could shift from 12 seats overall to 48, according to studies(£) by Electoral Calculus. It may take up two more years before the details are finalised – another reason for delaying any rush to the voting booths.
Politics aside, there’s another hurdle even to staging a 2018 election, which just might suit May in terms of the Brexit negotiations and the fateful triggering of article 50, the Lisbon provision that sets the clock ticking for a two-year withdrawal. Nick Clegg thinks it would. But we just don’t know, no one does, only that straight-talker May says “Brexit means Brexit”.
The hurdle that still remains hasn’t yet sunk into everyone’s consciousness because it’s anorak stuff. When the coalition partners feared the other might pull the plug, they passed the Fixed-Term Parliament Act (2011) as a mutual insurance policy. That took away the prime minister’s discretion to drive to the palace and seek a dissolution from his Queen. It gave the power to MPs.
So there are now two routes whereby the election, now due in May 2020, can be held sooner. One is a vote of no confidence in the current government followed by a two-week interval in which someone else tries and fails to form a government that can win such a vote.
In a multi-party parliament such as PR voting might elect, we can see how that option might arise and actually work, though the devolved Celtic parliaments elected by a form of PR have not yet shown such dexterity. But Westminster still votes under first past the post. Perhaps a Tory successor to a Brexit-defeated May might pull it off in unforeseen circumstances. It’s hard to imagine Corbyn mustering the necessary votes.
The second route is a vote by two-thirds of MPs to back an early election. That’s hard to imagine too – turkeys voting for Christmas, as the old joke goes. Perhaps Tory Brexiteers might try to thwart May’s “soft Brexit” approach by joining forces with Corbyn, who’s only nominally pro-EU. Even an ardently pro-EU Labour leader, John Smith (1992-94), joined forces with such people to thwart John Major. Does Labour now have such tactical skill and cohesion? I doubt it.
Tim Montgomerie blithely suggests that a small amendment to the 2011 act would clear May’s way to a 2017 election if she wants one. Easier said than done. But who knows, the economy may tank and take her poll lead with it. Owen Smith may defeat Jeremy Corbyn and prove a brilliant leader. The EU or Putin’s Russia may get stroppy. President Trump could do anything. Martians may land to remove Trump.
In dangerous times, nobody really knows. So if May values her emerging reputation as Mrs Solid-but-Boring, an English vicar’s daughter to match Germany’s pastor’s daughter Angela Merkel, I don’t think she’ll jeopardise that reputation unless she is forced to risk annoying a slumbering electorate.
Once lost, power is not easily reacquired. Ask Dave.
This article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Thursday 11th August 2016 12.19 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010