Polling day is now seven weeks away. Today MPs made this official by voting 522 to 13 for an early election. But not before events in the Commons offered a clear foretaste of the kind of contest the 2017 general election will be. On the one hand, the chamber was crowded with a hugely confident Conservative party, close to overbearingly so at times, seeking a mandate that Theresa May will be tempted to treat as conferring unfettered authority. Opposite them, a group of mainly anti-Tory parties, each singing their own distinct and sometimes decent tunes, displayed a glum conviction that anything other than a Tory victory is improbable on 8 June.
Yet these are early days. Things may change. The Theresa May of the past 48 hours is not the Theresa May much of the country had been quietly impressed by over the past nine difficult months. In calling this election, she has released a surge of potential hubris in herself and within her party and its press supporters. This is not a pleasant sight, and it is possible she may come to regret taking the public so much for granted when she did her snap poll U-turn – on which she was well skewered by Yvette Cooper at prime minister’s questions – and then compounded it by refusing to take part in TV debates that the public has by now rightly come to expect as a necessary part of the election process.
Just as she did in Downing Street on Tuesday, Mrs May also made her pitch in the Commons in strikingly personal terms. At times this verged on political arrogance, another unattractive quality on which she had previously managed to keep the lid. Every vote for the Conservatives makes it harder “to stop me getting the job done”, she said. Every vote “will make me stronger” in the Brexit negotiations. The consensual Mrs May of the “coming together” Easter message seems distant now. The midweek relaunch as Messianic of Maidenhead is not a good look.
It was Mrs May’s direct responsibility too, that the Daily Mail should feel emboldened by the words she used when she fired the starting pistol on Tuesday to reduce her message to a chilling ‘Crush the saboteurs’ front-page headline. And that the Sun should precis it into a snap election to “kill off Labour”. This is the autocratic language of a Trump or a Putin, not of a prime minister who projects herself as a one-nation Tory in a country in which 48% voted to remain in the EU. On the Today programme she appeared to distance herself from such words. But in the Commons, offered the same opportunity by the SNP’s Angus Robertson, she remained silent. That was shabby and unprincipled.
This is not to deny the authority of other aspects of Mrs May’s performance. On Wednesday, oozing contempt, she trialled a three-part soundbite that said Jeremy Corbyn would bankrupt the country, neglect national defence and was unfit to lead, which we will hear every day in the coming weeks. By comparison, Mr Corbyn’s stock litany of broken Tory promises sounded worthy, but generalised and limp. Given that no opposition party has recovered from such opinion poll deficits on “best leader” and “best on the economy” as those from which the Labour leader now suffers, Mrs May’s message could be as effective as it is brutal. George Osborne’s decision to stand down only adds to Mrs May’s command.
But this election has not started well on many fronts. The debate authorising the election was pathetic, given the importance of the decision and the issues involved. Mrs May had called an election the country does not need. Labour, incomprehensibly, went along with it, as though indifferent to the blatant intention of the Conservative ploy or to its potential impact. The Liberal Democrats, out of the game since 2015, leapt at a chance to get up off the floor. The SNP rubbed their hands at the mischief they can make with a huge Tory win at Westminster. Amid all this, the desirability of fixed-term parliaments and of stopping prime ministers from calling opportunist elections were simply cast aside.
It is of course possible that this election may prove a catalyst for some useful things in British politics. A victorious Mrs May may marginalise her right wing and may agree a softer Brexit. A defeated Labour may decide that winning elections matters more than hardwiring control over the party. Liberal Democrats may find a role again. The Greens may prosper. Yet these are all maybes, all far from certain. What is certain is that Mrs May has asked for a viceroy’s mandate not a doctor’s mandate and that MPs have rolled over and given it to her far too readily.