UK Politics

If Theresa May calls an early election Labour might as well give up

Theresa May has the chance of redrawing of the map and winning a Tory landslide

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  7 March 2017

The early election talk is back, with former Foreign Secretary William Hague using his perch in the Telegraph to say that Theresa May should go for it.

The obstacle usually cited, the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a legacy of the 2010 Tory and Lib Dem coalition, is not insurmountable. It scrapped the old provision that a Prime Minister could demand ‎a dissolution at any point with a trip to the Queen. But in practical terms, all May need do is say she wants an election and put it to the vote in one of a number of ways and dare Labour to vote against it in the Commons. “Stop, we don’t want this to go to the voters,” is not a good look in a democracy, and even Corbyn says he would vote for an election in which he would then likely be crushed.

It is constantly stressed that ‎May is unlikely to go for it because she is not a gambler, although she handled the referendum and its aftermath so well thanks to nerves of steel. She may not be a wild gambler. She is certainly a good poker player. She takes her time, and she wins.

The legitimate fear is that any rush to the country would make her look tricksy, especially when most voters want her to get on with Brexit.‎ An unnecessary poll can induce all manner of resentful voter behaviour, low turnout, grumpiness and unintended consquences. There is also quite enough electoral madness happening in France, the Netherlands and Germany, without the Brits joining in.

And yet…

The prize is a great one. Assuming a pretext could be found – such as the blocking of the Lords on Brexit, or a clear mandate on the talks with the EU – consider how a short campaign would play out.

The Tories can tap piles of money, including from donors who drifted in a UKIP direction pre-referendum. They are well-organised and have archives full of incendiary material on Corbyn. Imagine the publicity material on the IRA, on support for Communist regimes, on crazy economic policies and endless tax rises. Think of the films and the posters.

Meanwhile, Labour is a shambles, with no coherent machine or serious rival team ready for government. The campaign would be punctuated by infighting and incompetence that is the hallmark of Team Corbyn, with sensible Labour MPs disappearing ‎to their constituencies to try and hold on.

UKIP is ‎in meltdown and it unclear whether its leader can survive. In Scotland, the SNP would continue to dominate, although there is scope for three or four Tory gains. The Lib Dems in England are well-placed to make some gains in the south, in Remainer territory, but not in a way that upsets the central calculation of the electoral arithmetic. That is the Tories comfortably above 40% and Labour probably mining the low 20s.

And above it all‎ would float Theresa May, a national leader seeking her own mandate, providing the perfect contrast with Corbyn. It is in the north of England‎ that the down to earth May is most popular, raising the possibility of a redrawing of the map and a Tory landslide.

If May decides not to hold an early election, that landslide is what she is giving up in the hope that none of the fundamentals have changed by 2020. That means she needs to get through three tough years with the following results. Brexit happens smoothly, the economy sails along, Scotland does not vote for independence, and Labour does not find a way of ditching Corbyn and choosing a wildcard sensible person who might begin the rebuilding.

An awful lot could go wrong. Think back three years from now, to early 2014 and consider how much changed in terms of personnel and assumptions in the interim. The real gamble for May could turn out to be giving up a certain landslide this year for three more years of hard slog in government with a small majority at the mercy of the fates.