A month and a bit ago, Theresa May announced a General Election. She didn’t have to. Indeed, just before she called it most of the smart political commentators said she wouldn’t. But she did, and she was right to do so, for three reasons: legitimacy, mandate and flexibility.
Legitimacy, because the EU referendum had rejected the recommendation of three quarters of the House of Commons and almost all arms of the UK government, creating a legitimacy crisis. How could those who had opposed Brexit be responsible for its scrutiny unless they stood again saying they would accept it and seek to implement it properly? Mandate, because although May had hoped she was not bound by Cameron’s manifesto commitments on tax and the economy, the 2017 Budget self-employed taxation debacle suggested she was. And flexibility, because a mid-2020 General Election would fall at an infelicitous time if she wanted a post-Brexit transition period of two or three years in which EU contributions, ECJ jurisdiction and free movement continued, whilst a 2022 General Election would create credibility that any transition arrangements finished by then would not endure over the longer term.
So she called it. And we should remember the situation. Before she called the election, polls suggested a 100+ Conservative majority. Immediately after the election was announced, polls suggested that might actually be 200. There were serious calls for Corbyn to be replaced before the Election as the last hope to save the Labour Party. There was talk of a new centre party formed by Osborne and Blair.
What we must ask ourselves, after the excitement of the past few weeks is: do we really believe that much has changed? One of the main rules of thumb of election polling is that the final result almost always matches what the polls said just before the election was called. Polls move hither and yon during campaigns, but campaigns don’t change the final answer. There is an important relevant exception to this rule: snap elections can involve shifts in opinion, because mid-term polls may not reflect genuinely settled sentiments. But even so, do we really believe that much has changed?
Terrorist attacks – yes. But can we really believe these will favour Labour under Corbyn? Social care, yes – but do wereally think the Conservatives’ wanting to charge people for things that benefit those people, keeping things as they are now, is a game-changer or actually that fundamental a surprise?
Folk say that the Conservatives’ election campaign has been poor. But is that right? The campaign was calibrated to attempt to turn an expected majority of 130-150 into a majority of 200+, getting Conservatives elected in parts of the North-East and North-West where Conservatives had not held seats for generations. So the campaign attempted to de-emphasize Conservatism (still a difficult brand to buy in parts of the North) in favour of Theresa May and Brexit. If they had thought the aim of the campaign was to turn a 12 majority into a 50 one, they’d have run a completely different campaign. Some polls suggest that could have been a mistake, but other polls still suggest a majority of over 100 is very much on the cards, and it could yet be much higher.
Stepping back and looking with a perspective beyond the froth of the latest campaigning event, surely the natural expectation is that the principle that campaigns change little will re-assert itself in the end. May may not get the 200 majority that seemed possible at one stage, but 100 would still be a huge success – way, way beyond anything commentators thought possible for a Conservative party only two years ago.
And if she doesn’t, if the majority is only 50 or 30 or even 10, it doesn’t really matter. Because the key purpose of the election was not an increased majority. The Conservatives have routinely managed a 30+ majority in the Commons on most measures since 2015 and have had no real difficulty in implementing their chosen programmes. That would continue in the coming Parliament even if May wins no more seats at all.
The purpose of calling an election was not an increased majority. It was restoring legitimacy post-EU referendum, giving May’s programme its own mandate, and creating wriggle-room for Brexit transition. Even a 10 majority would secure all those things. Job done.
Don’t worry. It will all be fine.