Steve Richards: Don't expect Theresa to take the primrose path towards an early election
The PM will want to be seen as getting on with the job - but she needs to be careful.
Theresa May has a new argument for calling an early election. She is starting to float policies for which she has no mandate. The return of grammar schools, a likely new policy announcement in May’s first party conference speech as Prime Minister, would be a very big leap back to the past. Already May has changed the cabinet with an impressive ruthlessness. Policies are changing with a similar brutal speed.
Yet the referendum that propelled her in to Number Ten was over the single issue of whether the UK should remain in the EU. No one voted for a new government or even a new Prime Minister with an agenda distinct from the one voters very narrowly elected a year or so ago. The change of government givers her a perfected excuse for an act of expedient self-interest. “It is only right I seek a mandate for my new policies” has more moral potency than “I’m miles ahead in the polls and Labour is falling apart. I’m going to call an early election because I can win it big”.
Currently May has a majority of twelve, a puny number from which to navigate the nightmare of Brexit. If she called an early election she might win her own landslide majority, a much more formidable parliamentary context for her bumpy Brexit ride.
And yet I do not believe May will take the primrose path towards an early election, one that legitimises her government and gives her a majority that David Cameron could only have dreamed about. Admittedly for May it is an even tougher call than for other Prime Ministers facing similar dilemmas. The current parliament still has such a long way to run and she only has a majority of twelve.
Nonetheless I expect her to keep going for now partly for the same reason that those other Prime Ministers in similar circumstances resisted the temptation. After he succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990 John Major came under immense pressure to call a snap election. Indeed last week Michael Heseltine, a candidate in the 1990 Tory leadership contest, told Peter Hennessy in a Radio 4 interview, that he would have called an early election had he won. Heseltine was one of those urging Major to go to the country. Major did not do so. Famously Gordon Brown did not call an election in 2007 when he was enjoying a political honeymoon. In both cases I can understand why they did not.
Major and Brown had cast an early spell. Their claims to be governing in a consensual spirit were widely believed. In her opening weeks May has cast a similar spell. If she called an early election the spell would be broken. Immediately she would be reduced to being another leader seeking partisan advantage.
May also faces an additional barrier, the fixed term parliament act. The act is a single item of legislation introduced for shallow short-term calculations that has transformed UK politics. Cameron introduced the change in order to buttress the newly formed coalition. He showed no further interest in constitutional reform departing with a resignation honours’ list that displayed at the very least a contemptuous indifference to concerns about patronage and democratic accountability. But fleetingly Cameron became a reformer and introduced an act that makes it very difficult for a Prime Minister to call an early election.
Of course if she is desperate May has the option of repealing the act or contriving a vote of no confidence in her own government, but part of her current appeal is that she shows no signs of desperation. All this might change. Most Prime Ministers become desperate. It is possible that later in the parliament the act will be repealed but such a move would not and probably cannot be made for reasons of transparently obvious self -interest.
Later on in this parliament there are bound to be crisis points over the Brexit negotiations during which, one way or another, May will struggle to prevail.
One of the senior Tory MPs who backed Remain tells me that there are around fifty like him who feel strongly about the matter and cannot be relied upon to support a hard Brexit route. Conversely there are at least the same number on the other side already watching like hawks to make sure the government succeeds fully in “taking back control” whatever they take that to mean. There may come a point where she concludes despairingly that this parliament, elected before the referendum, can no longer function. That is very different from deciding to go for an early election during her honeymoon.
May is bound to be asked about an early election when normal political activity resumes after the summer break. If she does not rule one out without qualification she will find, like Brown, that overwhelming speculation means a new Prime Minister loses control of the issue. I therefore expect her to rule one out and to be seen getting on with the job. For all the apparently irresistible temptation, that would also be the right course for May. After all she has a lot to be getting on with.
But she needs to be very careful about how she conveys distance from the Cameron era without winning her own election. The introduction of grammar schools, reducing other schools to the equivalent of secondary moderns, is an example of a tumultuous and contentious policy change that requires the verdict of the voters first.
Steve Richards Presents Rock N Roll Politics at the Edinburgh Festival from Tuesday August 16th.
Photo: Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images