Analysis: Theresa May's surprise election call sends opposition parties scrambling
Theresa May's decision to hold an early election kicks off yet another election campaign
Theresa May - credit: PA
In April, May chose June. June the 8th to be precise.
Theresa May’s decision to announce an early election certainly came as a surprise – not least because the Prime Minister herself had ruled out the prospect on a handful of occasions in the nine months she has been in power.
Yet, despite her previous assertions to the contrary, May found herself standing outside Number Ten explaining why she had “reluctantly” changed her mind.
“Since I became Prime Minister I have said that there should be no election until 2020, but now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take.”
The justification, apparently, lay in the behaviour of opposition parties. “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.
“In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill.
“The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union. And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
None of it was particularly convincing – particularly given May has not been defeated on a single phase of her Brexit plans since becoming PM. It looked far more like opportunism.
On the face of it, the potential benefits to Theresa May are huge, with polls suggesting the result is a foregone conclusion. A YouGov poll put the Conservatives on 44 per cent and Labour on 23 per cent, giving May a 21-point lead, while another conducted by ICM after the announcement put the Conservatives on 44 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent. An average of polls compiled in April put the Tory lead over Labour at just over 17 per cent.
As ICM director Martin Boon put it: “Theresa May’s 18 to 20 points is about as secure a polling lead as any prime minister has ever had when they have called an election.”
And the lead aside, even if May failed to increase her majority as expected, she will still buy herself an extra two years before facing another election, and in doing so put a bit of extra distance between the moment the terms of Brexit become fully apparent and the moment when the British people provide a judgement at the polls.
Discussing the PM’s motives, Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, suggested they may lie closer to May’s own party than in the opposition. She said: “Since the Prime Minister exercised Article 50 on 29 March, it has become clear that the European Union (EU) will demand significant compromises if Britain is to secure a deal of any shape.
“There are at least 50 MPs in her party for whom (if we take them at their word) this would be anathema, and would vote down such a deal even if it meant that Britain would leave the EU with no deal at all. She did not mention them in her statement, preferring to focus on the Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs with their assorted reasons for objecting to a likely deal, as well as to likely opposition in the Lords. But they are surely the greater obstacle.”
Meanwhile, reports the Crown Prosecution Service is considering criminal charges against more than 30 people, including Conservative MPs and their agents, over election expenses at the last general election led to further questions – rejected by May – about the PM’s sudden desire to hold a quick vote.
Whatever her reasons, the vote for an early general election was overwhelmingly passed by 522 to 13 in the House of Commons, and with the PM making the announcement just weeks after triggering Article 50, the implications were enormous. In fact reactions in the civil service, already stretched almost to breaking point with the task of setting about Brexit talks, must have been quite a sight to see.
But with both France and Germany holding national elections, negotiations are unlikely to get moving any time soon. Meanwhile the EU and the UK are not due to actually agree a finalised structure for negotiations until 22 June.
And so there is time for the vote, but another election – and the introduction of purdah – will still surely affect the civil service’s preparations for leaving, particularly on work to put the Repeal Bill in place. Meantime, the Queen’s Speech, previously expected at some point in May, will now be delayed, with knock-on effects on an already tight legislative programme. That means even less time for scrutiny.
Still, the prospect of boosting Tory seats following the collapse in support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour proved too much for May to resist, and at this point, the Tory campaign looks likely to focus on a two-pronged strategy on the need to pursue a hard Brexit, and exploit weaknesses in the Labour Party.
In 2015 the party covered England in posters depicting Ed Miliband sitting in Alex Salmond’s pocket as a warning against a ‘progressive alliance’ aimed at keeping the Tories out. Think what they will do with Corbyn.
Perhaps in anticipation of these same tactics, Corbyn moved quickly to rule out any coalition deal with the SNP. Nicola Sturgeon, though careful not to rule out some sort of electoral deal with Labour, also seemed somewhat sceptical, telling journalists: “I’m not sure there are many people who think Labour are going to be in a position, on their own or with anybody else, to form a government.”
The SNP was quick to outline its message for the coming campaign, with senior figures scrambled to characterise the party as the only force capable of sheltering a centre or centre-left Scotland from a coming storm of further austerity, brought by May’s Conservatives and facilitated by the collapse of Corbyn’s Labour.
Speaking in London, in front of the assembled ranks of SNP MPs – the result of a stunning success in the 2015 vote – SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon cut straight to the point, gesturing around her at what she described as “the real and only effective opposition to the Conservatives in the House of Commons”.
She said: “We are making clear today our intention to win this election in Scotland and for Scotland. Now, more than ever, Scotland needs strong voices.”
Combined with that emphasis on the unity of the SNP group was a broadside on what they would need to resist. A bigger Tory majority, Sturgeon warned, “would mean not just the hardest possible Brexit, but also further austerity and deeper cuts”.
She said: “It would mean damage to our public services and more pain for the vulnerable. And it would mean a rightwards shift in the governance of the UK that just a few years ago, UKIP could scarcely have dreamed of.”
Of course, looming in the shadows, as it has done ever since 2014 and even more so since last month, was the prospect of a second vote on independence.
Sturgeon had alluded to the matter during her trip down south. “Make no mistake, if the SNP wins this election in Scotland – and the Tories don’t – then Theresa May’s attempt to block our mandate to hold another referendum when the time is right, will crumble to dust.”
The question then became what winning would look like for the SNP. The idea the SNP can win a UK general election in Scotland is an interesting one, but there seems little doubt the party will face a narrative problem if, as seems likely given the extent of its success in 2015, it loses a few seats come June.
The opposition in Scotland will certainly see it that way, with Kezia Dugdale responding swiftly to paint Scottish Labour as a force of opposition to both the Tories and Scottish independence.
She said: “This is a UK-wide election that will have major implications for Scotland, and only Labour or the Tories can form the next government.
“Only by voting Labour can we get rid of Theresa May and stop further cuts to public services. Scottish Labour will be putting forward a positive vision for a fairer UK that rejects both the Tories’ plans for a hard Brexit and the SNP’s plans for a divisive second independence referendum.”
And while the SNP will no doubt campaign on the need to give Scotland a chance to vote for independence and attempt to re-join the EU following the UK Brexit vote, there is a sense that a general election will present a distraction for a party which, up until now, has succeeded in shaping, rather than simply following, the narrative at a UK level.
After all, the party already has a mandate from the Scottish Parliament for a second referendum and the vote from Holyrood – 69 to 59 in favour of a rerun of the 2014 vote – is arguably more relevant in asserting the will of the Scottish people.
However the opposition sets about responding to the PM’s challenge – they better get on with it quickly. Whether June marks the end of May remains to be seen.
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