Nope. Theresa May Is Not Going to Call an Early Election
It just won’t go away. Since Theresa May took over from David Cameron, she has denied, as far as any politician can without totally burning bridges, that she has any intention of calling an early election. She is determined not be felled by the excitement that Gordon Brown stoked then failed to meet.
This week it is former foreign secretary, William Hague, who is urging his former colleague to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act and go to the country to secure a Brexit mandate.
On the surface, the logic is appealing. Her party currently has a majority of 17. Although more united than in a long time over the European question, there are enough Tory Remainers to make life difficult for the government. On grammar schools and, more recently, on business rates the government is a hostage to its wafer-thin majority.
The opposition is weak. The Copeland by-election confirmed that the polls are right: Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is not merely languishing in the polls but hemorrhaging support. Even their simultaneous win in Stoke was lacklustre.
For Labour the timing could not be worse. Corbyn’s leadership has snapped the party’s hold on working-class voters. May, unlike her predecessor, has the ability to scoop up these votes. Even its own leader’s office doubts Labour can win an election.
However, Theresa May will not call an election.
May would have to call a vote of no confidence in her own government, secure a two-third parliamentary majority in favour of an election or repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act which has set the next general election for May 2020. None are easy or entirely credible.
It would take more than a Commons majority to repeal the act: the legislation would have to go through the House of Lords. Even if Labour supports repeal in the Commons, peers might not and the prime minister has no Lords majority. May risks being humiliated, her time consumed when she should be leading Brexit negotiations.
The electorate gave the Conservatives a slender majority in 2015. That is the lot they have to play with
Most importantly, she has no rationale for an election.
That is not to say that there never has been a rationale for a post-referendum election: a majority of voters narrowly rejected a major plank the government’s economic, trade and security policy. Clearly “taking back control” should mean giving them a say in what comes next.
This rationale does not fit May’s narrative which is that the referendum result requires a “clean Brexit”. To say now that, in fact, she has no mandate would require serpentine logical contortions. May does not want the debate about Brexit because she has no need for the debate.
Although her Article 50 bill passed, she was defeated twice in the Lords; awkward but not irreversible. She has not, however, been defeated in the Commons.
Theresa May could win an election, probably handsomely, but there would be a cost.
When Edward Heath called an early election in 1974. He asked the country “Who governs?” He expected a generous response. They replied: not you. It would be a foolhardy person who would bet on a similar reaction in 2017. However, she would lose her main asset: that she is a serious politician who is not interested in political games. An early election, without reason, would be seen as opportunistic.
The electorate gave the Conservatives a slender majority in 2015. That is the lot they have to play with.
While May’s parliamentary numbers are slight on paper, on Brexit they are larger: Labour Leavers, the Democratic Unionists and UKIP substantially increase her majority. At the moment every time Labour considers opposing the government she can play her simplistic “will of the people” card. Labour MPs, given a post-referendum mandate by voters, would be far more formidable foes - whatever the parliamentary arithmetic.
an increased parliamentary majority is not incentive enough for May to take the nails out of her leather trousers and climb down the mast
She has rebels and problems, which will increase with time as negotiations force compromise and difficulties. Yet her problems are, at the moment, nothing like her opponent’s. Labour is cowed by her narrative, whatever its flaws. Why release them from the pain?
Unless Labour members decide to put a red rosette on a donkey and elect him or her, any post-defeat leader would able to provide more forensic resistance than Corbyn. The Conservative attitude to an effective opposition is similar to Saint Augustine’s attitude to chastity: yes, they want it but not yet.
An election might provide a clean death for the Corbyn project. May clearly considers it better to allow Labour to dangle in the Brexit wind. She might even be enjoying it.
None of this is to argue that there should not be an election. It is to say that an increased parliamentary majority is not incentive enough for May to take the nails out of her leather trousers and climb down the mast to call one.
At the moment May is leading a government elected with 36% whose defining policy is “supported” by 52% of voters. Any victory, even a landslide, cannot match that.
There is perhaps another argument: she sincerely believes that what the country needs and wants is a government that actually governs.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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