Theresa May’s snap election is cynical political game playing | Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr
‘Theresa May needs a new, obedient parliament, whose members will agree that Brexit means whatever the prime minister says it means.’ Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

Psychologists talk about hindsight bias: our tendency to project inevitability on to unforeseen events. That which surprised us yesterday will tomorrow be treated as if there were no other way things might have been.

So it will be with the election that Theresa May wants to hold on 8 June. Why would she not seek to bolster her tiny majority? How could she pursue Brexit negotiations, steering the UK through epoch-defining change, without a personal mandate and without confidence that parliament would approve any deal? Why, with the Labour party debilitated and divided, would she not press the electoral advantage?

The Tories have a double-digit opinion poll lead. May has personal approval ratings in territory that few prime ministers enter, and where none dwells for long. Now that the election date has been named, it will soon seem absurd to imagine that May would have waited longer.

There were reasons to believe she might hold back. One was the technical obstacle of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which turns out to be not much of a deterrent. A better one was May’s insistence that she didn’t want an election before 2020. Hindsight bias casts that as a bluff. Certainly there is material available for anyone wanting to depict May as a machiavellian schemer, targeting June 2017 as the optimal polling period, secretly building up to it for months. Such a narrative might look back to last autumn’s deferral of an awkward parliamentary vote on Heathrow’s third runway as a clue, or to the abandonment of national insurance reforms from last month’s budget the moment they were denounced by Tory-friendly newspapers, or to the curious case of grammar school expansion – repeatedly hailed in May’s rhetoric yet never promulgated in law. It is easy to suppose that the prime minister has all along been clearing decks and arranging artillery for electoral battle well ahead of the 2020 deadline.

Repeated denial would be consistent with that plan. As Gordon Brown learned to his cost, talk of a snap poll must be killed or confirmed. To let speculation run wild is to surrender control of the announcement and drain its potency. An early poll must also plausibly be seen to arise from necessity, not cynical design – hence May’s claim that her decision is recent and reluctant – forced on her by the implacable wreckers of Brexit.

British politics has been in a state of electoral agitation on and off since the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The aftermath of that vote fed into the 2015 general election campaign, which in turn disgorged the EU referendum. When May took office she declared, rightly, that the public appetite for ballot-box consultation was sated. Most people, she believed, expected politicians to get on with the job. She styled herself as chief getter-on-with-it.

May tried to wear the referendum result as a personalised robe of office. She has often spoken of support for Brexit as a coded demand for the broader social and economic agenda she nurtured for years of prime ministerial ambition at the Home Office, with protection for indigenous workers against foreign interlopers as the centrepiece. She claimed to hear a national cry of frustration and imagined herself uniquely placed to answer it. Her half-hearted supported for the remain campaign was buried in enthusiasm for the most radical severance of EU ties.

May appropriated Brexit as a cultural revolution defined by repudiation of David Cameron’s liberal metropolitan reign as much as by scorn for Labour. But that isn’t how the British constitution works. The referendum is more recent and dramatic than the 2015 election but not legally superior as an instruction for government. So to complete the revolution, the Tory leader needs a new, obedient parliament, whose members will agree that Brexit means whatever the prime minister says it means.

In her remarks outside No 10 May did not disguise that demand. An election had become necessary, she said, because forces in Westminster were obstructing the harmonious realisation of Britain’s post-EU destiny. She listed Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists and unelected Lords as a common scourge: doubters and unbelievers.

It was a partisan return to the theme to her Easter address over the weekend. Then, too, she spoke of national unity; the healing of divisions opened by the referendum. In the context of a Christian festival she chose not to denounce her political rivals as sowers of discord. She saved that sentiment for Wednesday’s secular sequel.

The two statements should be considered in tandem as an expression of the PM’s character – the combination of piety and ruthlessness. She sees herself, and wants to be seen by others, as a practitioner of something higher than politics. Her commitment to Brexit is more vocation than policy. Her alignment of that calling with personal ambition is subconscious. Confidence in the nobility of her own motives precludes recognition of cynicism in her actions. She gambles but does not see herself as a gambler. She plays politics while supposing she doesn’t like games.

May does not appear to feel any contradiction in the plea for an end to disharmony while launching a campaign that will be prosecuted with merciless aggression. Even if she has been planning an election – or at least keeping the option open – for longer than her statement implies, I doubt she sees anything dishonest in the volte-face. She felt entitled to rush Britain towards the promised land beyond EU membership without an election. But now she accepts that such a vote, a formality in her mind, is necessary. Either way she treats the idea of alternative destinations as a nuisance.

There is a soft megalomania in the way May presents this ballot. It feels as if the democratic process is being requisitioned not to air competing opinions but to dispense with them. There is an unhealthy inference that politics should aspire to total unanimity and that the best outcome of an election is the elimination of inconvenient dissent.

A snap poll is the shrewd thing for May to do for the fulfilment of her ambition. She needs a personal mandate and it is clever politics to grab one now. But she must not imagine there is anything more noble to it than that.

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