John Lehal: Theresa May's route to an early election

Written by John Lehal on 29 September 2016 in Opinion

A 2017 election is on the table - and Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election might be Theresa May's trump card.  

It’s a crisp, clear morning in March. Theresa May emerges from her Ministerial Jaguar and stands outside 10 Downing Street, one hand nervously resting on the podium. The Prime Minister tells the world’s media that she has returned from Buckingham Palace, ahead of a General Election that could guarantee May another five years in office.

A scene from 2020? Perhaps. But there is an increasing likelihood that she will be making that speech next year.

Jeremy Corbyn may have secured a decisive victory as leader of the Labour Party, but whether he will be able to fill the front bench and field a functioning opposition remains to be seen. Theresa May will be looking across the Commons at an opposition leader whose own MPs have spent the summer disowning him as being unable to lead, unable to unite and unable to win. Corbyn might be offering a clean slate to his MPs, but the public won’t extend him the same courtesy as his dismal approval ratings continue to plummet. The die is cast and more than a second’s thought about how electable the opposition are must leave the PM asking: "What if?"

Not that life is much easier for May herself. Like David Cameron, John Major and James Callaghan before her, the PM is finding out just how difficult governing with a small majority is. Her first major domestic policy announcement, on grammar schools, looks likely to get voted down by her own backbenchers. May’s decision to sweep out most of Cameron and Osborne’s ministerial allies along with their policy agenda means there are a lot of disgruntled faces behind her at PMQs. Life is already hard, and that’s before she starts to face the inevitable criticism that her EU negotiations will bring from unhappy Brexiteers and Remainers alike.

So if the case for May to go for an early election is overwhelming, how could she do it? It starts next week in Birmingham. A well-regarded first conference speech as Prime Minister will put some flesh on the bones of the domestic agenda she outlined during the short-lived leadership election and start to expand her thinking on Europe beyond simply “Brexit means Brexit”.

A Green Paper follows, setting out the Government’s general principles on freedom of movement, the single market and customs union, and the right of EU nationals to remain in the UK. November brings the Autumn Statement, as Philip Hammond charts a new course after the austerity years of George Osborne. Perhaps we might learn more about the Government’s proposed Industrial Strategy.

At the same time, it becomes clear that May’s plans on immigration, grammar schools and the Single Market are not supported by the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Downing Street starts to quietly brief the press that the Prime Minister has a bold new agenda and, unlike Gordon Brown, isn’t scared of seeking her own mandate to deliver it. Furthermore, a General Election would give her the opportunity to table for the British people the Brexit deal she will deliver. The Prime Minister must also have half an eye on the calamitous warnings made during the referendum about the economy after Brexit. She will contend it’s better to have an election now, rather than risk an economic downturn she might not recover from.

But what about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act? Some argue that an early election would require the absurd spectacle of the Government voting to have no confidence in itself, before giving Corbyn’s Labour two weeks to attempt to form a majority in the Commons. This is a red herring. The Act allows two thirds of MPs to vote to have an early election, essentially requiring both Government and Opposition to decide to go to the polls together. It might be the equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas, but it’s hard to see how Labour could refuse. May is well within her rights to go to Parliament and ask for an early election, and she should grab the bull by the horns and do so.

So an early election is possible, and Corbyn’s re-election might be the best argument for May to do it.  The chance to win an election in her own right and guarantee herself a full term in office, and an undeniable place in history, should prove impossible to resist. The question is whether the Prime Minister is bold enough to go for it.



Picture by: Matt Dunham/AP/Press Association Images

About the author

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Consulting Group.

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