April 19, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
There are many good political and constitutional reasons for Theresa May to have an election right now. She was always in my view too hasty to dismiss the prospect of an early election before next Fixed Term Parliament Act mandated one in May 2020. Now here we are with her pushing for an election on June 8th and here I am with my four reasons it should go ahead and two further reasons it might be happening.
May’s mandate – or more specifically the fact that she doesn’t have a personal one. It is important to remember that she was elected as Conservative Party leader last year, and thus Prime Minister, without a proper leadership election. Yes, she was the choice of an overwhelming number of Conservative MPs, but the contest didn’t even go out to the members of the Party. Even if it had, at the last count there were about 150,000 members, so even that would have been a very small mandate. No, at times like this a Prime Minister needs a mandate. That mandate needs to come from the electorate.
Brexit – by ‘times like this’ I mean when the country is about to go through the most important negotiation it has been involved in for centuries. The negotiation strategy that is to be used with the European Union should be subject to some form of approval from the electorate, or at least May’s right to lead it. Even if May had been elected PM in 2015 she would be going to the EU with a majority of only 12 in her pocket, with which she would be simply unable to guarantee the support of a U.K. Parliament for any deal made. This has become particularly important due to the Government’s commitment to hold some sort of ‘meaningful vote’ when the deal is made. The likely outcome of this election (a much larger Conservative majority), will mean she may actually be able to say that whatever deal she gets will be ratified by Parliament. That may help in the negotiations, because without a larger majority, it was in the interests of the EU not to grant the UK a good deal, as then Parliament may have voted it down, possibly causing a second referendum. Another issue has been that with a small majority May is always at the mercy of disgruntled factions of a few Conservative MPs who can lose her Government votes. Increasing that majority could mean that she can pursue for instance a ‘softer’ Brexit as she won’t have to keep pandering to the extreme Eurosceptics in her party. But in general it was becoming apparent that the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, which was going to be used to put the EU laws onto the British statute book, was going to be repeatedly blocked and held hostage by all of the parties in the Commons, making effective Government very difficult at a time when it needs to be decisive.
Scotland – During her latest round of tubthumping about the second Scottish independence referendum, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pointed out as frequently as she could that the SNP had a mandate to call a second referendum (because their manifesto at the 2016 Scottish Assembly election said they would if the Brexit vote went the way it did), but Theresa May had no mandate for anything. This, as explained above, is true. May had the chance now to put into her manifesto what she wants to do on the Scottish independence issue and get a mandate for that, in addition to her Prime Ministerial mandate.
The 2015 election manifesto handcuffs – I have a feeling that it was the March Budget reaction that made up May’s mind. Phillip Hammond came up with a policy on raising National Insurance contributions for the self-employed that had some legitimate arguments for it. But they couldn’t happen as (admitted by former Cameron communications team member Ameet Gill) the Conservatives had come up with a ‘tax lock’ in their 2015 election manifesto because they couldn’t find a policy for their media grid one day. This meant VAT, Income Tax and National a insurance couldn’t be raised over the life of the next Parliament. When the legislation was put in place in November 2015, it excluded self-employed National Insurance contributions, but that didn’t matter. A rather pathetic cheap shot policy aimed to fill a day’s media that the Labour Party couldn’t afford to oppose had handcuffed May and her Government from raising tax even if that tax was being raised to help people. When you add to that her attempts to get legislation through to increase the number of Grammar Schools, which wasn’t in the manifesto so was going to be hard to get through Parliament, you can see how frustrating it must have been getting for May not to have a mandate to carry out her policies. This election gives her a chance to do that, which is why the manifesto produced will be very interesting.
Having covered why it should go ahead, here are two further reasons it might be happening:
Labour’s woes – some people are saying this is the ONLY reason May is calling an early election. Obviously, it must be tempting with Labour is such disarray to take advantage of it. Remember, the Conservatives are one of the greatest election-winning machines in world political history so it would be no surprise if they were to use this election to ‘solidify’ electorally their 15-20 point poll advantage. They couldn’t be guaranteed that Jeremy Corbyn would still be in place in 2020, so they should take the chance now. A Labour supporting friend of mine, actually a party member, told me today that they were glad this was happening now so that the “Corbyn nightmare will be over”. Labour COULD be reduced to as little as or worse than their 154 seat result in 1935, IF the Lib Dems have a good campaign, IF UKIP can present themselves as a sensible alternative and IF the Conservatives pick up the marginal seats they had previously lost to Labour.
2015 Conservative election expenses scandal – on March 17th this year the Electoral Commission fined the Conservatives £70,000 for the under-reporting of its election expenses during the 2015 General Election. Furthermore, fourteen police forces have asked the Crown Prosecution Service to consider charges over election expenses. It is technically possible that these individual constituency elections would have to be rerun, although unlikely. Some are suggesting that calling a new election would result in a ‘clean slate’ for them (assuming they stick to the rules this time). That is not necessarily so, but it is still a point worth considering.
As to which actually is the most important reason for this election happening? I think it is a combination of all of the above. For me the most important reason is to give May some sort of mandate to lead. I realise I am making a lot of assumptions in this blog, in particular that the Conservatives will win by a large margin, and the situation with Labour. I will look at these assumptions in more detail in future blogs.