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Britain braces for a May election, in June, and the prediction industry roars back to life

Theresa ‘I’m not going to be calling a snap election’ May has called a snap election. And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn must be crapping himself, writes Jonathan Hutchison from London. 

If there’s one thing journalists and commentators ought to have learnt from the past year in politics, it is this: never ever ever predict anything at all ever again ever. The ancient art of political augury received such a solid slap from Brexit and Trump that you’d think it would at least go underground for a while.

But when UK prime minister Theresa May gave just over an hour’s notice that she would be making a surprise statement outside Number 10 Downing Street, nobody could resist. Twitter was jammed with so many theories that it seemed like there was a quota that had to be met. Television news channel chatter intensified. Newsroom clocks ticked slower than usual.

We’ve attacked Syria. No, wait: North Korea. Brexit is being cancelled. Theresa May is standing down.

Britain’s two biggest selling newspapers

The tension must have been unbearable for Theresa May, too – she strode out of Number 10 several minutes earlier than scheduled, and got straight to the point.

“I have just chaired a meeting of the Cabinet,” she began from behind her lonely lectern, which stood without the government’s insignia (a detail that was not missed by the aforementioned political sleuths). “We agreed that the government should call a general election to be held on the eighth of June.”

Ah, the distant eighth of June. One whole month and 21 whole days away. Lucky there’s nothing else happening at the moment – just another push for Scottish independence, a huge French election across the Channel and the beginning of the (very brief) negotiation period before the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. Oh, and some of us want to take some annual leave, thanks.

There were many people who did guess correctly what Theresa May’s announcement would be. But in fairness to those who guessed wrongly, there certainly were reasons to think she would not be calling a snap election. Primarily those reasons were based on her own words, including clear, declarative sentences such as: “There should be no general election until 2020”, and: “I’m not going to be calling a snap election.”

But, hey, saying one thing and then doing the complete opposite is totally in for world leaders right now.

The about-face on holding an election came as a surprise, but it’s easy to see why May feels confident in picking this fight, even as the two-year Brexit clock is ticking. The Conservatives are sitting at 44 per cent support to Labour’s 23 per cent, according to the latest YouGov poll. Half of the country thinks Theresa May is the best person to be prime minister, versus Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s 14 per cent. I know, I know, these are just numbers from the most notorious of forecasting methods: a poll. But even the opposition doesn’t seem convinced it can win. Shortly after the snap election was announced, three Labour MPs said they wouldn’t stand – including Tom Blenkinsop, who specifically cited “irreconcilable differences” with Jeremy Corbyn as the reason for his decision. On Twitter, Labour voters quickly turned on their true enemies: other Labour voters.

Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn reacted to the election announcement by saying: “I welcome the prime minister’s decision”. I can only imagine that he welcomes it in the way that I felt a strange sense of peace and inevitability right after I accidentally snowboarded off a cliff at Mount Ruapehu.

Meanwhile, Theresa May sounded supremely confident. “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger” is a real thing that she actually said on live television and not in a political cartoon. Her aides insisted she wouldn’t take part in any television debates, because the choice is “already clear” and, besides, she is on TV all the time.

Back in March, the general secretary of Unite, Britain’s biggest union and the Labour Party’s biggest backer, said of Corbyn: “Hopefully we’ll see if he can break through and the opinion polls begin to change. I would suggest that the next 15 months or so will give us the answer to that.” He had previously given Corbyn until 2019 to prove that he has what it takes to become prime minister. Now Corbyn has just 51 days.

I am not, dear reader, in the habit of making bold and public political predictions. Instead, I will point you to my previous comments:

But if the circumstances change, I reserve the right to completely reverse my position.


See also: Corbyn Blimey – Jim Anderton, Judith Collins, Helen Kelly and more on Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable rise to the Labour leadership


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