Downing Street has once again had to deny it plans to call a fresh general election this spring, following reports this weekend of senior Conservative figures calling on the government to go to the polls in early May. With March 27th the last possible date to call an election for May 4th, the decision to trigger Article 50 on March 29th might further help kill off these rumours.
Many Conservatives may be kicking themselves. As Lord Hague, among others, has argued, the current political good weather might come to an end before Brexit is finalised. Rebellions over the Great Repeal Bill and other Brexit-related legislation might pose a threat, although the DUP and Labour Eurosceptics should bolster the government’s majority.
Therefore, the logic goes, why not seize the moment? With Labour and UKIP in disarray and the Conservatives almost 20 points up in the polls, a new election could be a golden opportunity to boost the government’s majority. Any attacks on the legitimacy of the government’s majority due to question marks over election spending in 2015 would be made irrelevant, as each MP would receive a fresh mandate.
Most importantly, however, if the poll predictions are correct, and there is a surge towards the Conservatives, Prime Minister Theresa May would get a personal mandate, both for her Brexit plan and for her overall vision for the country. Unlike Gordon Brown, who pulled out from calling an election at the last minute in autumn 2007, she would totally put to rest the idea she is an “unelected” prime minister, somehow lacking “legitimacy”.
The idea is tempting, but May is right to resist it. Brexit is this government’s top priority, and just like a second referendum on Scottish independence, a fresh general election would simply serve to divert much of the government’s attention from the main task of delivering the best possible Brexit deal.
At this point, the only viable timeframe for a spring general election would require the government to call for the election around the same time as triggering Article 50, i.e. next week. Even then, unless Labour gives the government a two-thirds majority in favour of a fresh election, the process would be held up by the need to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.
This, of course, would essentially mean May triggering Article 50 and then leaving the EU to sit alone at the table for several weeks while she campaigns back home. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has just announced an EU summit to discuss Brexit on April 29th with the intention to “create as much certainty and clarity as possible”. How could they create any certainty with Britain in the grips of an election? There are few more sure-fire ways to upset your negotiating partners.
There would, of course, be no guarantee Theresa May would be the one returning to the table. Elections are by their very nature unpredictable, and the public aren’t exactly known for their love of unnecessary elections. It is unlikely May would emerge from the election in a weaker position, let alone out of power altogether – but a triumphant victory is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Things would be further complicated by what an out-of-character step this would be for May, who has successfully built up a reputation as a safe pair of hands – a cautious, solid, and trustworthy leader. For her to take the risky and somewhat cynical decision to call an early election – despite her repeated insistence she would not do so – would go a long way towards destroying her good reputation.
In calling an early election, May would also be undermining her approach to Brexit so far. Her Brexit plan does not need the validation of a general election – her mandate for this comes from the EU Referendum result on June 23rd. We have already voted to retake control over our laws, borders, money, and trade policy. We should not have to do so again.
However, tempting as an early general election might be, the prime minister is right to decline the opportunity. The government is not in such a precarious position that a fresh vote is necessary – it might be a small risk, but it would still be an unnecessary risk. The government should stick to its course, focus on delivering the best possible Brexit deal, and leave fresh elections until after we get Britain out of the European Union.
Joseph Hackett works for the cross-party group Get Britain Out.