May’s strategy must be to stand up to the hardline Eurosceptics and hope they blinkby John McTernan / May 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
It’s back! Rumours are circulating of an early election, and the wise are getting prepared—not because it will happen, but because assuming it can’t is a recipe for disaster.
There are technical obstacles to an early election, after all we have a fixed term parliament. Simply put that requires the government to lose a confidence vote or win a two-thirds majority for dissolution. The latter was achieved simply last year when Theresa May effectively challenged Jeremy Corbyn to “come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough.” Corbyn was unwilling to be badged a coward and the Tories got their dissolution. The outcome we know well: May blew a 20-point lead.
That experience alone should be a warning for the prime minister—the only majority Tory government for over a quarter of a century lasted just 25 months. But more important are the two central facts of UK politics. First, we are in unprecedented times of political upheaval—all fixed certainties have been undone, so precedent is no guide. Second, Brexit. And this is the real driving force behind speculation about an early election.
Even those most committed to not reading or thinking about politics—or to give them their technical name “normal people”—will have realised that something is going wrong with Brexit. Nearly two years after the referendum there has been no progress in negotiations with the European Union about the terms of our leaving. In reality, that is because the real negotiations are not with the EU27. They are still being conducted within the cabinet and between the prime minister and her own backbenchers.
The problem lies, as ever, with the fundamentals. It is an iron law of politics that the MPs on the other side of the House are merely your opponents, your enemies are all on your own benches. If strength in politics is to vanquish your enemies then May’s mistake all along has been to negotiate with them.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and the European Research Group don’t want to be reasonable, they just want to prove that the leader of their own party is a traitor to the true faith. The mixture of absolute certainty, intolerance and refusal to “compromise with reality” is toxic.
Which brings us back to that general election speculation. This has focused on two main scenarios. The first hypothetical is that May is brought down by her Brexiteers and that this precipitates a general election. The second is that parliamentary deadlock forces her into calling the vote herself. The first of these I do not buy. The Brexiteers cannot bring May down. They do not have the votes and there are no obvious alternative candidates, just a line of people who the parliamentary Conservative party knows cannot be leader.
Which brings us to the second. Should May do it? Should she call the country to the polls yet again? Absolutely not. There is only one approach that will work: the one that May, and her predecessor David Cameron, have refused to use—confrontation, defeat and humiliation.
The answer to May’s Brexit problem is directness. She cannot give the Eurosceptics the hard Brexit that they want because she does not believe in it, because it would be bad for the country and because it is impossible. The bedrock of all populist politics—whether Brexiteer, Scottish Nationalist or Trumpian—is the notion that if we all clap hard enough then the economy won’t collapse. Outside of pantomimes that doesn’t work.
May had a moment of absolute authority when she was elected unopposed as Tory Party leader. She threw that away. She refused to combine the general election she wanted with the local elections already timetabled and blew a huge poll lead.
She won’t get that authority back by holding another general election—that would only show a country still in deadlock and risk Labour becoming the largest party. Not to mention it would be a procedural nightmare: we would probably have to ask the EU to stop the Brexit clock ticking until we’d sorted it all out.
The prime minister has one move left. She should pick a fight with her real enemy—her backbenches—not with the country.