By the logic of politics the real surprise was that the UK prime minister hadn’t called a snap election earlier, writes the Guardian’s Richard Adams.
In the end Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election was a surprise but not a shock.
A surprise because May herself had repeatedly and unambiguously ruled out calling an election, and still had more than three years left to run in the current parliament’s five-year term. But not a shock because, well, have you seen the opinion polls?
By the logic of politics the real surprise was that she hadn’t called an election earlier. Her main opposition in England is in impotent disarray: Labour tied to its Jeremy Corbyn-shaped albatross, and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a ghostly rump after being deservedly crushed at the last election less than two years ago. The polls unanimously give the Conservatives big double-digit leads over Labour, including a trio of surveys out over Easter. To her right May has no rivals after the Brexit referendum result ended UKIP’s entire reason for existence.
So why not call a snap election? For one thing, politicians are instinctively cautious around calling elections, probably because their jobs are on the line and the outcome is inherently uncertain. British political history is filled with examples of prime ministers not calling elections when they should have. Jim Callaghan might have mitigated the worst of Thatcherism had he called one in 1978 rather than waiting a year. And Gordon Brown famously dithered after taking over from Tony Blair, foolishly allowing speculation to run rampant and then backing off the idea of a snap election via an odd TV interview. He never recovered.
Hence Theresa May’s secrecy, which succeeded so well that the hour and a half before her announcement on Tuesday morning was packed with speculation ranging from May’s health, possible hostilities with Syria and/or North Korea, to the Queen’s abdication.
Strategy aside, May had good tactical reasons to call an election. Taking power after the Brexit “leave” victory and David Cameron’s resignation, she has never been rid of the “unelected” jibe. And of course Brexit looms above all else: a post-referendum election victory would silence the Remain resistance inside and outside her party. Hence the Daily Mail‘s front page the next day, egging May to “crush the saboteurs” of Brexit – a group that includes judges, apparently.
But there were also reasons to steer away from the ballot box. One is that the longer Corbyn is leader of Labour, the worse that party seems to do. A crushing Tory election victory and Corbyn will surely step down, possibly to be replaced with someone who has a functional grasp of how politics works. But leave him there a couple of years and Labour could be destroyed.
After the announcement a couple of other pieces of speculation emerged. One was the prospect of legal action being taken over Conservative election expenses in 30 seats at the last election. By that account, May’s move is to distract. It’s not impossible but that idea comes close to conspiracy theory.
The other speculation was that Brexit – the single issue that will define this election and everything else in the UK for the next few years – compelled her to clear the decks and get re-elected now, before the Brexit shit hits the fan of reality.
What happens next will be a relatively long election campaign – encompassing the local government elections in early May, and then on to the general election itself. The Conservative Party is edging close to the high 40%-plus mark in opinion polling, which could presage a landslide. Britain’s first-past-the-post system privileges a major party that can win 47% or 48% of the vote in England. Suddenly whole swathes of seats will fall in to its lap.
The campaign will be a second referendum on Brexit, whether Labour and the Tories like it or not. Labour will try and make it about the National Health Service, but probably fail. The Liberal Democrats are likely to emerge as the voting receptacle for many of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU. But worst-case (or best-case) scenarios of a Tory landslide may not come to pass. The election may see Labour voters disaffected by Corbyn return to vote for the party anyway. Ukip and pro-Brexit Tories may stay home, through overconfidence (this is clutching at straws). The Greens may see their vote taken by Corbyn’s Labour outflanking them to the left. And the polls may be off, as they usually are in UK elections – two years ago all the polls were convinced of a hung parliament. The final outcome was a comfortable Tory majority.
Most likely though is a Conservative victory by wide enough margins to give Theresa May her “hard” Brexit, especially over immigration. And the snapping then will be Britain’s ties to Europe being broken.
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As an aside: New Zealand would do well to temper its optimism regarding post-Brexit Britain. For all the talk of a quick and easy trade deal and some sort of special relationship, it’s worth making two points. One is the disorder and confusion at the heart of government in London – nothing is going to happen fast. The other is that Britain’s farmers have been quiet for decades now, their mouths stuffed with EU gold. But they will regain their voice. And when they do they will complain long and loud about agricultural imports from New Zealand. The clock cannot be turned back to 1973.
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