Three times British politicians gambled on a ‘snap election’ - and it backfired

Left to right: Stanley Baldwin, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson
Left to right: Stanley Baldwin, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson

April 18 now seems a very long time ago – when Theresa May announced that she would hold a snap election with the goal of ‘unity’.

A snap election is an election called much earlier than needed, usually by a party in a position of strength – and they’re relatively rare in the UK.

Since calling this year’s snap election, May has dealt with setbacks such as the disastrous reception for the so-called ‘dementia tax’ revealed in her party’s manifesto.

The Conservatives’ lead over Labour has plunged from the 16-point lead May enjoyed in April, with one (controversial) YouGov poll now predicting a hung Parliament.

But can snap elections really backfire this badly? Actually, yes – and in some ways, May’s decision to call one this year has echoes of past mistakes….

1923 – Stanley Baldwin

Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin hoped to strengthen his own position within the party when he gambled on a general election one year after Andrew Bonar Law’s victory.

Like Theresa May’s snap election – called to foster ‘unity’ in the run-up to Brexit – Baldwin fought on one issue, protectionist trade tariffs.

It backfired.


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In the wake of the result, Baldwin said glumly, ‘Everyone who tries in politics to do the thing he believes in simply and honestly is sure to come a smeller. The martyrs did. Christ did.’

The result was a hung parliament, instead of an increased majority – and a month later, Baldwin resigned, paving the way for the first-ever Labour government.

February 1974 – Edward Heath

On February 7, 1974, Prime Minister Edward Heath called a snap general election in response to a planned miner’s strike.

Heath posed the question, ‘Who governs Britain?’

While Heath’s Conservatives got more votes than Labour, Labour won more seats – and Heath resigned on March 4, 1974.

In February 1975, Margaret Thatcher challenged Heath for the leadership of the Conservative party – and unexpectedly won.

Heath said, ‘They have made a grave mistake choosing that woman.’

October 1974 – Harold Wilson

Labour’s Harold Wilson was a veteran of snap elections – having successfully called one in 1966, and going from a majority of four up to a majority of nearly 100..

But in October 1974, he wasn’t so lucky.

Wilson’s Labour party won the election, but with the slimmest of majorities – just three seats.

A series of by-election defeats led to Labour losing even this majority – and in 1977, the party was forced into a pact with David Steel’s Liberals, known as the Lib-Lab pact.