Ahead of conference in Manchester the party has few good options leftby Peter Kellner / October 1, 2017 / Leave a comment
Six months ago, Theresa May had a plan. Whether you consider it a cunning plan depends on your judgement and, perhaps, your sense of irony.
Her plan arose from a particular concern about the Brexit timetable. Under the fixed term parliament law, the next general election was due in May 2020. This would be just over a year after the United Kingdom left the European Union. The Conservatives would campaign for re-election against the possible backdrop of post-Brexit economic turbulence. From a party point of view, it would be far better to go to the country once the dust had settled.
That meant holding another election soon, and so re-setting the five-year clock so that the subsequent election need not be held until 2022. To do this meant answering “yes” to two questions: 1) Given the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, could she persuade enough MPs to vote to dissolve parliament well before its five years were up? And 2) Could the Tories be sure to win an early election?
We all know what happened. The yes-yes that May expected turned to yes-no. Labour joined the Tories in agreeing to an early election—but the Tories’ initial 20-point lead evaporated, and we ended up with a hung parliament, and May’s authority much diminished.
What, then, is the Tories’ electoral strategy now, as they gather for their annual conference? We can dismiss the tweaks to student loans, announced over the weekend, as a short-term gimmick designed to get May through this week, not a strategy to get her, her party or the country through the next five years—or even the next five months.
For a longer-term perspective, we need to return to the prime minister’s recent speech in Florence. A 2022 election, which was supposed to help the Conservatives, now looks like a terrible risk. May spoke of a transition of “about” two years. Exactly two years takes us to March 2021; “about” two years almost certainly means longer—perhaps the end of 2021 or early 2022. Far from taking place when the Brexit dust had settled, an election in May 2022 would see it swirling around ferociously, and upsetting the very voters the Tories hoped to woo.
Foer that reason,…