Sneak attack (part 1)
Theresa May’s surprise call for the general election may very well change…absolutely nothing. This is part 1 of a diptych on the latest developments in the UK elections.
With the last masses having been celebrated and the final bells having been tolled, it appeared that the tranquility of the Easter festivities would make way for the metropolitan sounds of Westminster, as political leaders across party lines went back to work last Tuesday. However, unbeknownst to most, one particular politician had been working overtime to spring a coup many had stopped to even consider: When Prime Minister Theresa May (Conservative) emerged from 10 Downing Street, behind a hastily placed lectern and in front of a somewhat confounded press, she ended all certainties about the coming political season: “I have just chaired a meeting of the Cabinet, where we agreed that the Government should call a general election, to be held on June 8 2017”.
The Prime Minister’s words amounted to a sneak attack on the opposition Labour Party, which after much internecine warfare, appears to be hopelessly behind the Conservative Party in the opinion polls. Depending on which polling institute you asked, as of 26 April, Labour is behind the Conservatives by 23% or even 25%. Even if the most pessimistic opinion poll for the Tories (showing Labour having closed the gap and “only” being 11-17% behind the Conservatives) were to bear fruit, Prime Minister May is likely to celebrate a landslide victory unseen since Tony Blair and his New Labour swept into power in the 1997 general elections. Unless the opinion polls turn out to be stunningly inaccurate, the United Kingdom is looking at some form of Conservative-led government for another 5 years. It was probably a look at those very opinion polls that triggered the Prime Minister’s own change of heart.
Besides the fundamentals of British politics (fascinating in itself), the election call reveals a number of other considerations to be borne in mind:
- The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 did not pass the test: The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 (research briefing) was introduced by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government to end the problem of prime ministers examining their popularity in the country and prematurely dissolving the House of Commons to gain an overwhelming majority at the most convenient juncture of their tenures. In order to dissolve the Commons, a prime minister requires a 2/3 majority of all seats in the House of Commons (including vacant seats). This time around, Mrs. May easily managed to effectively circumvent the supposed barrier the Act was to represent – and secured a decisive majority. Bafflingly, the Labour Party consented to the parliamentary election – even though it is likely to fall victim to an unprecedented defeat, if the current polling numbers hold up.
- Brexit is all around: In her speech announcing the proposed dissolution of Parliament, Prime Minister May also underlined that her desire to call an early election was driven by her need to secure a strong negotiation position in the upcoming withdrawal talks with the European Union. During her announcement, the Prime Minister asserted that “in recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union” that “the Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill”, and that “the Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain's membership of the European Union”, whilst “unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way”. What is curious about this line of argument is the fact that the Prime Minister has not been defeated a single time during any of the votes in the House of Commons during her tenure. She was able to rally support for her European policy at all junctures, including the passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, which authorized May to activate Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. However, from a majority management perspective, calling a general election makes sense. The Conservative majority in the Commons, at the time of dissolution, stood at 12 seats. Given the dismal state of the Opposition, an increase to 75-100 seats currently looks plausible. It stands to reason that the Prime Minister would indeed get greater room for manoeuvre – both domestically and internationally. It would become more difficult for organized groups of committed Brexiteers to hold the government hostage during the course of the UK’s negotiations with the EU. That said, such strategic space would inevitably depend on the structure of the new Conservative Party group in the House of Commons. If previously observed dynamics within the Conservatives offer any guide  , then the 2017 class of Conservative MPs may very well contain a strong contingent of new MPs who will reject major compromises on ECJ jurisdiction and freedom of movement issues on principle.
Read Sneak attack blog part 2