Just after 11am yesterday, Theresa May stepped out of Number 10 and up to the lectern on Downing Street.
Five minutes later, political hacks and policy wonks were picking their jaws up off the floor. Those responsible for polling stations were thinking about moving ballot boxes and the backaches to come. And observers around the world probably started to wonder if, after three national votes in as many years, elections are becoming a British national pastime.
In calling a snap General Election for 8 May, the Prime Minister made British politics’ blockbuster announcement of the year so far. She also committed the biggest U-turn of her administration to date (which given the volte face after the Budget is saying something), having insisted for months on end there would be no election. But faced with a record polling lead over Labour, Mrs May felt compelled to go to the country.
The next six weeks will see reams of political conjecture, mountains of polls, and exhaustive efforts from politicos to spark the interests of an electorate that could be forgiven for voting fatigue after the past three years. There’ll be intriguing plots and sub-plots. And it certainly won’t be dull.
It’s all about Brexit
The election won’t, or at least shouldn’t, be about a single issue. But make no mistake, Mrs May’s decision to call an election is focused on one topic.
The Prime Minister is pursuing a mandate to manage Brexit her way. And the potential, if not likelihood, of an increased Conservative majority will allow her exactly that. If the Tories can deal a crushing defeat to Labour and prevent the Lib Dems from meaningful gains (also likely at Labour’s expense), then Mrs May will be able to pursue a harder line in negotiations and ultimately a harder Brexit if required, with a wounded opposition and Select Committees potentially stocked with Brexiteers less willing to mount a challenge.
Mrs May is aided by elections in France, Italy and Germany making substantial formal negotiations unlikely until the end of the year.
The question, though, is whether the purdah that will be imposed on the civil service will hinder British preparations for negotiations. It will certainly push back the Queen’s Speech, which would have formally introduced the Great Repeal Bill needed to start the lengthy process of transposing EU regulations into EU law.
Last ditch for Labour?
Jeremy Corbyn has promised Labour will support plans to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act. But the embattled Opposition leader faces an Everest-sized challenge to convince the country that he’s the man to lead the UK into the post-Brexit world. Mr Corbyn is viewed as a viable Prime Minister by just 14 percent of the population, and polls give the Tories a 21-point lead over Labour.
Mrs May’s announcement was followed by Tom Blenkinsop’s announcement that he wouldn’t stand again as an MP, with Alan Johnson also revealing he would be standing down. But while that can be dismissed as a one-off, and while doubtless the Tories will have a few of their stalwarts bow out of the Commons (bets on George Osborne anyone?), it’s worth remembering a number of Labour MPs have resigned their seats in recent months.
Commentators have suggested Labour MPs protecting narrow majorities, particularly those from the centre/right of the Party may choose to stand down rather than lose their seats on 8 June. If that happens then Labour could not only see its presence in the Commons reduced but could see a loss of talent on a scale with 2015.
What of parties with independence on their minds?
The SNP is resolute. The election will determine Scotland’s future and is an opportunity to push back against the potential for hard Brexit.
With Labour languishing in the polls, it’s difficult to see a scenario that doesn’t involve a bigger Tory majority. Certainly, the SNP won’t make much of dent, holding all but one seat in Scotland. But retaining its Westminster presence will reinforce the SNP’s demands for a more conciliatory Brexit negotiating stance, and will likely drive the push for a second independence referendum.
Meanwhile, what of UKIP? The party expected to challenge in constituencies across the UK in 2015 is in a tailspin. And it’s difficult to see them pulling out of it. Nigel Farage may stand again, but it could be a last hurrah. Not just for him, but for UKIP too.
Lib Dems on the rise?
The Lib Dems were the biggest casualties of 2015. So it’s difficult to imagine Tim Farron and Co will be anything short of delighted with an early election.
The signs were ominous for the Lib Dems. Routed two years ago, they faced near annihilation in 2020 had the Boundary Commission’s changes been implemented. But with a familiar constituency map and with Labour floundering, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to position themselves as the opposition to hard (indeed, any) Brexit. And their prospects will only be enhanced by UKIP’s implosion. They won’t rise to the heights of 2010, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if an increased Tory majority also saw an increased Lib Dem presence in the Commons.
In hock to the backbenches?
An overlooked but intriguing subplot to the election announcement is the extent to which Theresa May is and can be influenced by her backbenches.
Let’s not forget, Tory backbenches – even some members of Cabinet – have been calling for an early election for months. Meanwhile, Mrs May was adamant it simply wasn’t going to happen.
Tory backbenchers have gotten their way in the last couple of months. The Budget was swiftly undone at their whim. There will be countless expressions of admiration for Mrs May’s seeking a mandate and capitalising bravely on the political reality by going to the country. But those calls have been there for a while, and post-election we’ll have to watch carefully to gauge the power and influence of the backbenches. Who, by the way, may come to regret wishing for an early election. After all, there are more than few Brexit-supporting Tories who’ll be contesting constituencies that voted to remain…
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