Election 2017: May gambles on the polls and the weakness of the Labour Party

 

By Cameron Brown

 

Theresa May has put to bed months of speculation by announcing that she will seek to hold a “snap” general election on June 8. In a statement outside Number 10, she told the country that there would be a vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon to agree the poll.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of The Labour Party, said he welcomed the decision, and suggested his MPs would back the Commons motion. For the most part, Theresa May and her team have played down the prospect of an election for quite some time. Her main argument had been that an election would be a significant distraction from the task of delivering Brexit.

With the UK still reeling from the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the last general election in 2015, and the EU referendum in 2016 too, the view from Westminster was that the public would not take kindly to a government asking them to rush to polling stations for the fourth year in a row.

But we now see that calls for the prime minister to capitalise on the chronic weakness of the opposition Labour Party have proved too tempting.
A quick and comprehensive election victory, which the polls have consistently suggested would be the most likely result, will help silence critics of her approach to Brexit and allow her to negotiate with a more comfortable majority than the slim 17 the Conservatives work with today.

 

Achieving a new mandate

The justification for holding an early general election has always been clear for Team May: exploit Labour’s decline, significantly weaken its parliamentary position, and achieve a mandate by winning a renewed and larger majority – putting an end to any questions over the prime minister’s legitimacy.
There is  no better illustration of just how weak her mandate is than last month’s U-turn on national insurance for the self-employed. This perfectly demonstrated the problems of governing on a new policy platform, combined with the practical difficulties of enacting any changes with such a small majority in the Commons.

At the moment, May is limited to the election promises of a manifesto which belonged to someone else. This election presents an opportunity for her to set her own agenda for government, and amass enough support to push through the Great Repeal Bill – the first stage in ending the application of EU law in Britain. This will include renewal of opportunities to use the Salisbury Convention to compel the Lords to vote in favour of policies included in an election-winning manifesto.

The prime minister is acutely aware that divisions in her party over Europe have claimed the political careers of three predecessor Conservative prime ministers. We might therefore expect Brexit to be an existential threat to her, but so far this has not dented her popularity.

 

What the poll is telling the PM

Unusually for any mainstream party leader in recent years, May has been doing well in the eyes of the public, with her party ahead in the polls by 20 per cent on a good day. This figure includes two polls showing leads of 21 per cent in the past few days. Her personal approval ratings make sour reading for Labour also, with May boasting 50 per cent to Corbyn’s 14 per cent.
A uniform swing on the scale suggested by the polls would result in Theresa May returning to Number 10 with a colossal 120 seat majority – more than enough to weather the ensuing Brexit legislative storm.

It’s no secret that, operationally, the Conservative Party has been gearing up to fight an election for some time. The signs were always there: party agents were being allocated to seats, advisers appointed, literature ordered, and canvassers out in force. Prospective Tory MPs were even handed the very early deadline of March 24 to apply to be on the approved list of candidates.

To top it off, Sir Lynton Crosby, mastermind of the 2015 campaign, had already been spotted in party headquarters, further fuelling speculation of a possible snap poll.
We understand that Sir Lynton, who has today been re-appointed as the Party’s election chief, was instrumental in changing May’s mind over whether or not to hold a poll.

 

Why the election may not go to plan

So, why was May so insistent that she wouldn’t go to the country? There are still four compelling reasons why this may not all go to plan for the Conservatives:

  • A heavy Labour election defeat this June could bring forward the prospect of replacing Jeremy Corbyn with a more electable alternative.
  • Waiting until 2020 would have allowed the Conservatives to take advantage of constituency boundary changes which take effect in 2018, creating a dozen or more highly winnable seats for them.
  • The Scottish question. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already won a key Holyrood vote on her plans for a second independence referendum. This snap general election will hand the SNP an opportunity to keep all of their existing seats – which will likely be the case. That result could quite easily be used as a mandate for their plans for another referendum.
  • Finally, there are Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs in Remain-leaning seats that will be highly vulnerable to a surge by the Liberal Democrats. Tim Farron’s party will hope to turn the election into a second referendum on the type of Brexit being pursued by the government. We should therefore expect to see many from the Conservatives’ 2015 intake battling for their political lives in the South West of England.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has already said the vote would not change his preparations for Brexit. Although May triggered Article 50 last month, many observers had expected little progress until after the French and German presidential elections, leaving May with a small window of opportunity to go to the country.

 

What happens next?

The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, passed under the Coalition Government, gives power to the House of Commons to approve a calling of an early general election. Previously the Queen, on the advice of the prime minister, had this prerogative. Therefore, to call an early election, the Act only allows for two mechanisms for this to occur:

  • A motion is passed in the House of Commons in favour of an early election by a vote equal to or greater than two thirds of MPs (434), or;
  • The House of Commons holds a vote of no confidence in the government.

In this instance, the prime minister will put forward a motion under option one for an early election in the House of Commons on Wednesday. This means that 434 out of 650 MPs need to vote in favour of the motion, not just two-thirds of those in the Chamber.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have stated they will support the motion, enough for the motion to pass. Once the motion has been agreed, the polling day for election is to be on a day appointed by The Queen on the recommendation of the prime minister, in this case June 8, 2017.

Parliament is set to be dissolved on Wednesday May 2. Once dissolved, the Lord Chancellor is required to issue writs for the election. In the case of Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will issue the writs. The Queen may then issue a proclamation summoning the new Parliament to meet, most likely Monday June 12 2017.

It should be noted that there is no absolute guarantee the motion will pass in the House tomorrow, although it is probable.

Assuming all 54 SNP MPs vote against the motion, the government will need at least 60 Labour MPs to vote in favour for the election to go ahead.

The Corbyn whipping operation, however, could find it difficult to ensure enough Labour MPs vote for the motion. With the polls being where they, those Labour MPs defending majorities of under 4,000 will be extremely nervous that they’ll lose their seats. As such, they may vote down any move which will bring about an abrupt end to their political careers.