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There’s a very interesting received wisdom around Westminster that a General Election is unlikely. What would it solve? Mrs May has said she is leaving. What would the manifestos be? Ah, finger tapping the nose, you can’t because of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, and MPs would never vote for it. No, not likely, let’s get back to the stalemate – it’s much more fun.
Well there are one or two basic iron laws of politics. One such is if a government can’t govern you have an election. In other words you shake up the Commons, refresh it, give it new energy by giving it a new mandate. Other consequences are secondary.
Mrs May’s early departure is predicated on the Withdrawal Agreement passing. It hasn’t. Conservative Party rules prohibit a challenge to her position as party leader until the autumn. There is, currently, no reason to think she is departing from No 10 anytime soon. Her political obituaries were premature.
This week the Commons is likely to agree to a proposal including a Customs Union and maybe Single Market membership.
Is the Prime Minister then expected to acquiesce to the instruction of the Commons to go and negotiate that with the European Union, against her own oft stated preferences knowing it would cause huge ructions in the Conservative Party and the probable disintegration of the government?
She could ask a senior colleague to do this on her behalf and lead it through the Commons. This person would to all intents and purposes be Prime Minister in all but name. Better in that event for the Cabinet to agree a neutral person to be Prime Minister to do what is necessary, lead the concessions and compromises and oversee the inevitable leadership contest. A ten week Prime Ministership. That would get an agreement done, Brexit underway, and set a date for new leadership. Mrs May would stay as party leader for those ten weeks. She and the Prime Minister would resign on the same day to allow the new Conservative leader to become Prime Minister. Why should she though?
Polling shows now huge support for the passing of Mrs May’s agreement among Conservative voters. Party polling also shows stronger support for her as leader than any would be successor.
Mrs May could also be forgiven for wondering why she should just stand aside and allow, without further resistance, the possibility that one of the people who had caused her the most political trouble to succeed her as Prime Minister. She knows that many of those who want to take her job will rip up and discard much of the work she had painstakingly done these last few years.
The thought must be then in No 10 that the calling of a General Election is the best as well as inevitable course of action. It would be messy, for both the Conservatives and Labour. There is the the unpleasant memory for Mrs May of the last campaign but she is vastly more experienced and battle hardened now, and she has a better team around her than last time. There is the tantalising prospect of winning, certainly of strengthening her position. This could help her pass her agreement and extend her premiereship. She would have put her agreement to the people and harnessed public support. If she won it would have a mandate to be passed.
The EU would no doubt agree an extension in such circumstances. How could Labour refuse. There would be enough Conservative MPs who would vote to support the Prime Minister’s wish.
A General Election to test people’s views, break the Parliamentary deadlock, re-energise the Government is our normal way of sorting out such a position as the one we find ourselves in. It is the best way. It is the British way.