SNAP GENERAL ELECTION: Should Mrs. May call one?

March 20, 2017

Since she became Prime Minister last July, there has been a steady stream of speculation as to whether Mrs. May would go to the country. In recent days, rumours have surfaced of a 4th May poll to coincide with the local council elections that are already scheduled to take place. Robert Peston commented on ITV that he believed a snap-poll was ‘more likely than not’. Despite this and the latest ICM opinion poll which gave the Conservatives an eye-watering 19-point lead, Downing Street have flatly denied the prospect of an early election. Back in 2007, there was similar conjecture about whether Gordon Brown would go for an Autumn election, he was in a commanding position in the national opinion polls and most were suggesting a Labour victory with a clear majority. On 6th October, Brown ‘bottled it’ and announced that there would be no election. Within days, the Labour lead evaporated in most opinion polls and of course, Labour lost the 2010 general election, shedding 91 seats in the process. Theresa May will be eager not to make the mistake. 

The most compelling reason for the Prime Minister to call an election is to gain herself a mandate. As things stand, Mrs. May has a mandate and wafer thin majority from her predecessor. Although in the United Kingdom we have a parliamentary system, voters are still inclined to vote for the party with the leader they want to become Prime Minister. So, whilst there is technically no such thing as an ‘unelected PM’ per se, many voters still view a Prime Minister changing between elections as undemocratic. When Theresa May became leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, her party were only just ahead of Labour in the opinion polls. Since then, her lead has ballooned to unprecedented levels for an incumbent government. The latest surveys have given the Conservatives leads of anywhere between 13 and 19-points and the threat of UKIP has significantly subsided. Just a few weeks ago, the party pulled of an impressive win in the Copeland by-election, snatching a seat that the official opposition had held since 1935. If the polls are broadly right, and the limited evidence that we have at present suggests that they are, then the Conservatives could reasonably expect to receive around 40% of the popular vote and a landslide parliamentary majority in excess of 100. 

An election would also give Mrs. May the added benefit of being able to cut lose her party’s 2015 manifesto and write her own. Following recent U-turn on the budget and the looming defeat over grammar schools, this might not be such a bad idea and would give the Prime Minister significant authority in parliament and over the peers in the House of Lords that have caused her so many problems of late. It would also strengthen her position before the Brexit negotiations, effectively vindicating her decision of how to handle Britain’s exit from the European Union. Following last week’s call for a second independence referendum by the Scottish National Party, a snap election would also be able to effectively shut down Nicola Sturgeon’s argument that the Prime Minister is ‘unelected’. 

Of course, there is also a case for Mrs. May to wait until 2020. The biggest of these is that a snap election could appear opportunistic and as trying to capitalise on Labour’s woes. In the past, voters have been known to punish Prime Ministers who decide to go to the country early; Edward Heath’s surprise February defeat in 1974 is certainly testament to this. UKIP, currently slumped following humiliation in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, might see a resurgence in the polls if it is perceived that Mrs. May is delaying Britain’s exit from the European Union by wasting time with a General Election. On top of this, a snap poll would probably see Jeremy Corbyn lead the Labour Party to its worst defeat in terms of seats since 1931 and this would lead to his inevitable resignation. In his place, Labour could potentially choose a leader that is more popular with the electorate and in consequence, the Conservatives could lose their current position in the opinion polls. On this basis, it would certainly be sensible for Mrs. May to wait until 2020 and hope that Mr. Corbyn remains in post as leader of the Labour Party. Aside from this, the proposed changes to the constituency boundaries are scheduled to take effect in 2018. These changes reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and heavily punish Labour in the process. Martin Baxter’s Electoral Calculus estimates that the changes will inflate the current Conservative majority from 12 to a notional 38 and will cost Labour 29 seats. For any Prime Minister, these changes would be a prize worth waiting for and would give the Conservatives a much better notional starting position. A Conservative victory on these boundaries could of Thatcherite proportions. 

There are a lot of ifs and buts for Mrs. May to weigh up before she completely rules out a snap general election. If she waits too long, she might find that the hang-over from Brexit causes her party’s strong opinion polling position to disappear. On the other hand, waiting until 2020 will deliver her a stronger starting position through the proposed boundary changes and will effectively ensure (safe for any serious change of circumstances) that her opposition remains weak. With the mistakes of Gordon Brown in 2007 and the election that never happened in her mind, Theresa May must think and tread carefully. Senior Conservatives are reported to have been trying to persuade Mrs. May in favour but in the short term, it certainly doesn’t look like she is going to gamble and go to the country. However, with the triggering of article 50 on the cards for the 29th March, who knows what developments the next few days will bring. 


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