The Madness of A Snap Election and Why the Tories Would Lose

Since June last year, probably a week has not gone by without some kind of speculation about a snap general election. If Arlene Foster sneezes, front pages lead with stories of an imminent collapse of the government.

The real story is that Theresa May’s absence of leadership has made her minority administration remarkably stable.

Every time a political observer predicts an early poll, the one thing they do not do is tell us how. It is not just May’s vacuum that is propping up this government but the Fixed-Term Parliament Act. Designed to prevent the Conservatives playing dirty of their then coalition partners, the act means that weak governments can stay in office: MPs can only dissolve Parliament with a two-thirds majority, or bring down a government with a specific vote of no-confidence (ie a vote not linked to any bill or issue).

What is remarkable about the latest bout of speculation is that it is not Jeremy Corbyn predicting an early election will make him prime minister but Tory Brexiters who are unhappy with May over the Customs Union.

It goes like this: in the autumn May will return from Brussels with a deal that includes continued membership of the EU’s Customs Union. This will prevent the UK from negotiating its own trade deals. Brexiters will vote against any final deal in the Commons, bring down the prime minister and call an snap election on the issue of trade. Etc etc.

Their reasoning is flawed. Their democratic enthusiasm misplaced. A 2018 poll is still unlikely. And if one were held, the most likely result would be a Tory defeat and Jeremy Corbyn government.

Labour would still be favourites to win in 2018 despite their disadvantages

Labour is in a bad spot right now. The local elections were disappointing, outside London. Ken Livingstone’s self-propelled ejection from the Labour party has not calmed the waters any on its anti-semitism problem. The selection of a non-Corbyn candidate to replace Heidi Alexander in Lewisham East has started another row after Corbynistas dug up misogynistic dirt on the chair of the CLP, Ian McKenzie.    

You would have to go back to April to find an opinion poll that shows a Labour lead. Corbyn personal ratings have returned to where they were pre-GE2017. Theresa May has better “best PM” ratings than her rival even amongst younger voters.

Labour seem stuck in the myth that victory rests in repeating the trick of 2017 as if their opponents have learned nothing. Hubris.

But Labour would still be favourites to win in 2018 despite their disadvantages. And the Tories would deserve to lose.

It is ironic that Brexiters are supposedly agitating for an election when they have been most resistant to a second referendum. Democratic decisions that give them carte blanche are set in stone, it seems. Whereas ones that tie their hands are not.

Theresa May failed to win a mandate for an extreme Brexit in 2017. Those are the cards the Tories were dealt. They had better get used to them.

The two post-war governments that have gone to the people for a proper mandate have been new governments. They governed in poetry to establish a positive record, then went for an election. What do the Tories have to offer more of? Grenfell? Increased rough sleeping? An NHS in funding crisis? Windrush? With no domestic agenda to sell voters, all the Tories would have is a Brexit deal on which they cannot agree.

Unlike those elections, a 2018 election would be an admission of failure. It would probably look like 1974: Edward Heath dissolved Parliament early with the question “Who Governs?” Against expectations, voters replied, “Not you”.

Whatever question Brexiters ask the electorate in an early poll would most likely end in a similar rejection.

Britain elected a hung parliament in 2017. Its voters expect their political leaders to make do. If the government is unable to govern, then for voters the logical thing to do is to give their opponents a chance. Corbyn may be viewed negatively by voters, but the cabal of Johnson, Gove and Rees-Mogg is hardly one to inspire either hope or affection.

Brexiters are mad to think a snap poll will give them the power they want

An early election would be messy. There is no guarantee that May would resign in the wake of a parliamentary defeat nor that Brexiters have the numbers to do anything more than force a vote of confidence in her leadership. The prospect of yet another vote would herd Conservative votes into her column.

Labour are probably mistaken to think that they just need to bring the government down to assume power. Despite everything, there is no desperation for this government to leave office nor wild excitement for Prime Minister Corbyn. That may change but it is the situation now.

Equally, Brexiters are mad to think a snap poll will give them the power they want to achieve Brexit without any compromises. They got their result, they must lump it.

Moreover, so far Theresa May has been one step ahead of them, keeping her Brexit plan to herself. Her personality means she can endure the blows at PMQs and mockery.

She has already got them to agree that since there is no agreement, Britain will extend its CU membership. However bad it gets, her mission is not give Brexiters casus belli. Her hope is that, by playing it long, a choice of this or nothing will prevent meltdown.

No election remains the most likely outcome at the moment. The country has achieved a political stalemate that neither side shows signs of resolving. Both sides should take note.

More about the author

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.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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