Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an early general election was bold and unexpected. She could have waited three more years before going to the polls, by which time she would already have negotiated Britain’s exit from the EU. The word from Downing Street had repeatedly been that May opposed calling an early election, as there was too much to do with the Brexit talks approaching to justify taking time out.
And yet this once seemingly bland politician has again surprised everyone with her decisiveness. In announcing her intention to hold a vote on June 8, May explained that divisions in Westminster led her to seek a mandate for her Brexit vision. She accused the opposition parties of obstructionism, arguing that they are weakening the government’s negotiating hand with the EU. May’s hope is that a solid Conservative majority will settle the question of whether she has the consent of the electorate to take Britain out of the single market – a position her opponents have dubbed “hard Brexit”.
So, has May made the right call? UK election cycles are normally four to five years, but occasionally earlier elections are called. Harold Wilson called one in 1966, just two years after winning the 1964 election with a wafer-thin Labour majority of four seats. He increased that to 96. In February 1974, Labour, still led by Wilson, formed a minority government when the election resulted in a hung parliament. He called another election in October and this time secured a majority – although it was only by three seats.
One of the most famous instances of an early election, however, was one that was not called. In 2007, Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Labour prime minister, two years after the previous election. Three months into his premiership, Brown toyed with the idea of going to the country, encouraged by favourable polls. Speculation was allowed to build up over a fortnight to the point where an early election was expected. However, a shift in the polls during the Conservatives’ annual conference was enough to kill off the plan. Brown’s credibility never recovered from “the election that never was”. It symbolised his indecision and he was dubbed “bottler Brown” by his opponents. He would later face several coup attempts by Labour MPs, clinging on only to lead his party to defeat in 2010.
There appear to be no such dangers for May. Unlike Brown, she is seen as decisive and capable. She did not allow speculation about an early election to generate. Her announcement was a bolt from the blue. Neither is it likely that May was worried by the prospect of late poll swings. YouGov’s most recent poll put the Conservatives on 44%, a massive 21 points ahead of Labour on 23%. For a government with a small majority in parliament, that poll lead makes an early election extremely tempting.
Meanwhile, Labour continues to languish under Jeremy Corbyn. The party is split between centrist MPs who despair of their leader and a left-wing mass membership that has twice elected Corbyn with thumping majorities.
The party is in a desperate position and heads into an election in its worst shape since the collapse of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in 1931. That year saw Labour reduced to a rump of just 52 seats, and while a defeat on a similar scale won’t happen this time, Labour could well find itself losing seats for a fifth consecutive election – unprecedented for the party.
YouGov’s recent poll suggests a seven-point uniform swing from Labour to the Conservatives since 2015. Even if the polls narrowed somewhat, the Conservatives would still win about 40 seats from Labour on a five-point swing. Dozens of Labour MPs will be panicking at the prospect of this election, fearing that the Tory triumph in the Copeland by-election of February 2017 is a harbinger of things to come.
Brexit on the ballot
Does all this mean it’ll be plain sailing for the Conservatives? This will be a Brexit election and the government’s negotiating aims will come under fierce attack. The Liberal Democrats will hope to win back some of their lost seats in south-west England, urging a “soft Brexit” or even a second referendum.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) will accuse the Conservatives of ignoring Scotland’s vote against Brexit and the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will fight the election seeking a mandate to hold a second independence referendum. If the SNP retains the vast majority of its Westminster seats – it won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in 2015 – Sturgeon will claim her mandate and May will find it harder to postpone a so-called #indyref2. However, if the SNP slips back, with gains for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, May will feel emboldened to resist Sturgeon’s demands.
There could have been greater dangers for May in delaying an election. Governments can easily be blown off course by events. James Callaghan might have won an election in the autumn of 1978 but decided to wait until 1979, by which time his government had been destroyed by the winter of discontent.
British politics is currently in a state of extreme flux, leaving the government at the mercy of events. The Brexit negotiations could get messy and heated. The Lib Dems could win by-elections. Labour could replace Corbyn with someone more credible. Given time, each could have eroded support for the government, leaving it electorally vulnerable and undermining its negotiating strength.
May might never get a better chance to drive home her advantage. If she wins big, she will be able to end the taunts that she is an “unelected prime minister” who has no direct mandate for her Brexit vision. If, somehow, things do go wrong, and she fails to achieve a majority, all bets will be off and a second EU referendum would become a realistic prospect. But as things stand, that looks highly unlikely. The smart money is on an increased Conservative majority.
Tom Quinn does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.