"There is one thing which could trip the premier up—not stop her from winning, but contain the scale of her victory"by Tom Clark / April 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
Ever since the EU referendum that brought Theresa May to the top, her whole pose can be described by a single word: steadfast. And it is a pose that has worked wonders for her. Today, as she announced that she wanted to precipitate a general election, she sought to redouble her advantages in the steadfastness stakes. She charged her opponents with indulging in “game playing” and, for good measure, “political games” as well. She, by contrast, was the serious stateswoman who wanted to clear of the way the antics of such opportunists, and concentrate on furthering the national interest.
The truth, however, is that May has just played the opening gambit in the biggest political game of all. With apparent sincerity, and for an entire year now, she has insisted that there is no need for an early election—no reason at all to divert from legislation fixing the five-year term that was, after all, passed by the Conservative-led Cameron government. Back in the Autumn, she could have—with credibility—made the claim that the sudden post-referendum switch of leadership, foreign and economic policy necessitated a fresh mandate. Even as late as March, when she signed the Article 50 letter, she could have been half-convincing if she had said that the weight of that moment had persuaded her that it was necessary to ask a country that is in any event heading to the polls in council elections on 4th May to give the national government a new mandate as well.
But today that obvious moment has gone. Nothing of procedural substance has changed, and yet this all-conquering prime minister is pretending that the faltering resistance of a hopelessly divided Labour Party, and even the objections of two taxi cabs’ worth of Lib Dem MPs is reason enough for her to demand an immediate election.
What has changed, of course, is the one thing that May didn’t mention: the opinion polls. Two of which in quick succession have just shown 21 point leads for the Tories. This is potentially an advantage to defy all recent precedent. To put it in perspective, Margaret Thatcher beat Michael Foot by 15 points in her greatest win, while Tony Blair beat the Tories by 13 points in his first landslide. What could possibly go wrong?
The opposition certainly isn’t going to get in her way. Labour is, as now almost goes without saying, in an appalling condition—the divide between Jeremy Corbyn supporting members, and Corbyn-baiting MPs has bust the defining pivot between the parliamentary and voluntary wings. The Tories have kept all their most damaging lines about Corbyn in a drawer for exactly this moment—his most pacifist quotes, his most anti-western associates, and his divorce (supposedly) to keep his kid out of grammar school. The Liberal Democrats have admittedly got a certain wind in their sails as they have made an unabashed play to be the party of the defeated 48 per cent of Remainers. And there are a few seats where the Tories unexpectedly cruised home last time, where the Lib Dems might just snatch something back. But they start from impossibly low expectations. So shrunken in number, they are barely visible to the casual news-watcher, and besides they are not yet free of the taint of unpopular coalition decisions. Ukip meanwhile, denied of purpose by the triumph of its animating mission at the referendum, has descended into a show of collective self-harm that brings Reservoir Dogs to mind. Scotland is another country, but then—for the Tories—that has long been the case.
So Theresa may very well clear up in her great political game in exactly the way she expects. If everything goes her way, we could be looking at a 1935 or even a 1931 position, where parliament came close to being a mini-one party Conservative state. But there is, I feel, still one thing which could trip the premier up—not stop her from winning, but contain the scale of her victory. Specifically, that is being exposed as a game-player herself. As Gordon Brown, and others like Ted Heath, have found in the past, the electorate can round on politicians who they suspect are being tricksy with election dates. And Theresa May faces very special problems in avoiding that sense. For one thing, she has for so long set her face against an early election; for another, unlike her predecessors, she has to manoeuvre the ballot to get round the Fixed-Term Parliament Act. In theory, that could be difficult: she needs a two-thirds majority in the Commons. It is not easy for an opposition to run away from the chance to give the voters a say, but if Labour rediscovered its instinct for self-preservation it would resist.
May would then be left tabling a constructive vote of confidence in her own administration. She would have to maintain that it can’t govern properly without a bigger majority, which would not look great, and—even then—under the term of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, she’d have to wait for a seriously embarrassing fortnight to give others a go at forming an alternative government. All this could do real damage to her standing.
But as it is, even before parliament votes on her motion tomorrow, it looks like she will sail through. Jeremy Corbyn has welcomed the prospect of dissolution with the same cheerful lack of thought with which he called for Article 50 to be triggered immediately on 24th June last year. There may be some Labour MPs who will hold out against an election that looks so ruinous for them, but probably not enough to scupper the plan. The smart money is on May getting tomorrow’s motion through, helped along by the Lib Dems, Scottish Nationalists and at least a large chunk of the Labour Party too.
That will limit the damage for her. And she will probably go on to clean up in this great game. But when she emerges triumphant from it, she will be steadfast Theresa no longer.