The Prime Minister’s gambit of calling an early General Election is an audacious move not without risk. But if she not only wins but wins well, it should mean a significant change in how the UK looks by the mid-2020s.
Theresa May certainly caught everyone by surprise yesterday when she stood in Downing Street and explained why she was going back on her word to go the full term until 2020. Opponents such as Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon have been quick to accuse her of starting the election with a U-turn, but that is rich when they have been casting doubt on her mandate to govern by arguing she was never elected as Prime Minister.
Now the electorate will have the opportunity to either endorse or reject May’s government, and all the polling and bookmakers point to it being a handsome win, with Labour routed under the hapless leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
But is it that simple?
May is certainly playing for high stakes by betting the house on gaining a significant majority. She will talk up the issue of strengthening her hand to govern at home and to show the European Union that she has the country behind her as she goes into the Brexit negotiations. With polling showing that Brexit now enjoys more support than during the referendum itself (55 to 45 rather than 52 to 48), she should be working with the grain of public opinion.
She can also argue that, as the Brexit negotiations will not start in earnest until after the French and German elections in May and September respectively, there is a brief democratic sweet spot available to gain the backing of the electorate. And why not?
Her biggest risk is that voters might believe the Prime Minister is cynically playing them after she could see the polling showing her party consistently over 20 points clear of Labour, and her own popularity proving more attractive than David Cameron’s when he won back in 2015. It is possible the electorate will see things this way, but unlikely.
For the Prime Minister has otherwise been firm to her word. When she first entered Downing Street, she said “Brexit means Brexit”, and while many laughed she then explained she would invoke Article 50 before the end of March and publish a White Paper on what route Brexit would take us. She has delivered on all her promises and concluded that Brexit must mean taking control of immigration, laws and taxes, and so the UK must leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. By winning a handsome majority, she will argue that she will be in a better position to get the best deal possible – so why should people want to vote for a weak Prime Minister and poor deal?
Furthermore, the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 is a particularly un-British piece of legislation that was one of the hangovers from Cameron’s coalition with Nick Clegg, and while the Prime Minister will get the backing of the two-thirds of MPs it requires to call her election, I would also expect her to move for its abolition if she is re-elected.
There are other upsides to this snap vote. The Prime Minister had already with some skill called the bluff of Sturgeon by forcing the latter to concede she could not force a second Scottish independence referendum to her timetable. Now, by calling the General Election early, the SNP faces another dilemma – should it include the demand for a second referendum in its election manifesto?
Any such explicit demand will only harden Unionist sentiment in Scotland and lead to the Conservatives winning half a dozen seats compared to the single seat they currently have. It could assist Labour and the Liberal Democrats in making a modest recovery there too. Although we can expect the SNP to remain the largest party, it is unlikely to retain its 49.9 per cent voter share obtained in 2015 when it told electors that backing the Nationalists was not a vote for independence.
And while many observers are focusing on how Labour will be defenestrated by a big Tory win, it should also be noted that the election will be held with the current constituencies as there has not yet been time for the long overdue boundary review to be enacted. The new boundaries will be in place by the next again General Election and the Conservatives can then expect to benefit, providing a healthy insurance policy against a resurgent Labour under new leadership.
In short, by winning well May can ensure the Tories are in power well into the next decade, providing the opportunity to liberalise and deregulate the country on the back of Brexit. That should be good for the City and good for United Kingdom PLC.