There have been many historic moments in Parliament in recent months and there was yet another yesterday – the first vote by MPs to trigger a general election. In the past this was a prerogative power of the prime minister but it was removed by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. One aim of the legislation was to disarm what is arguably the most powerful weapon in the prime ministerial armoury, the ability to go to the country at a time best suited to the incumbents and their party.
Yet, in the event, MPs did just that. Just a handful of Labour backbenchers, one SDLP MP, and a few independents voted against holding a snap election, and the SNP abstained. Conceivably, this was the last time such a device will be used: a repeal of the Act is surely on the cards after the election. Many of the Labour MPs voting for an election did so knowing that their party is heading for its worst-ever result; and their fears were reinforced earlier at Prime Minister’s question time, where Jeremy Corbyn again demonstrated that he is the most hapless Labour leader since Michael Foot – and at least the latter was a former cabinet minister and an accomplished orator.
Indeed, a telling intervention by Yvette Cooper showed how much more effective the party could be with her in charge; then again, if she were, Mrs May would probably not be holding an election, since Mr Corbyn is her strongest electoral asset. Even his own MPs did not want him to remain in charge and many MPs will campaign in the general election by disavowing his leadership. The question, therefore, that voters need to ask themselves on June 8 is: why would the country want this man as prime minister when the people who know him best are appalled by the very idea?
One thing that voters expect in a modern general election is at least one TV debate among the main candidates
The coming campaign will have several themes. As Theresa May indicated yesterday it will be the “trust me” election: she is inviting the country to have faith in her ability to negotiate a good deal with the EU. It will also be the Brexit election, intended to consolidate the decision taken at the referendum and ensure there is no backsliding. In addition, it will have domestic consequences, since all parties will have to set out a policy platform for the economy, the NHS, schools and the rest.
But above all it is an election about fitness to govern. It is the Labour Party’s misfortune – possibly a terminal one – to have been hijacked by the hard Left, which for many years was a tolerated fringe movement but is now in charge.
However, Labour MPs have made their political bed and must now lie in it. But they cannot be allowed to foist upon the country a leader they do not even trust themselves. Moreover, this is a prospect that people must consider if they are tempted to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
The Lib Dems are making a strong pitch for Remain voters, many of whom will be traditional Conservative supporters disappointed by the referendum outcome. But the more seats they win the greater the risk that there will be no overall majority for any party and that Mr Corbyn could be part of a coalition.
One thing that voters now expect in a general election is a TV debate among the main candidates. Mrs May initially declined to agree to one, instead saying she wanted to take her campaign out to the country. Unfortunately, such campaigns are usually stage-managed and attended only by party activists. TV events place leaders in a forum that is not entirely within their control, allowing voters to make a better judgment about their qualities. It was just such an event where Ed Miliband’s denial that the Labour government had spent too much exposed the weakness of Labour policies.
So it is welcome that Mrs May has now signalled she intends to participate in a televised question and answer session, if not a full on debate. She could go further. She has nothing to fear from going toe-to-toe with Mr Corbyn or Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader, as she has regularly proved in Parliament. Furthermore, she has a good story to tell. After all, it is extraordinary to think that nine months ago the Conservative Party was close to meltdown after David Cameron resigned. A damaging leadership election loomed that threatened to deepen the split caused by the Brexit campaign. Yet now the Tories stand on the threshold of a domination of British politics not seen since the heyday of Tony Blair.