I confess I did wonder; when news broke this morning that Theresa May was going to make ‘an announcement’ without any prior warning of the announcement’s contents (a highly unusual step), the thought crossed my mind that the PM might be calling a snap General Election, despite repeated denials she would contradict the Fixed Parliaments Act and send the nation to the polls before the set date of 2020. Lo and behold, Mrs May’s ‘lectern moment’ outside No.10 did indeed confirm these suspicions. Bar the technical necessity of asking Parliament’s permission tomorrow, a General Election has been called for 8 June.
Prime Ministers rarely call an Election when their term in office still has plenty of time to run; John Major, probably convinced he’d lose in 1997, left it until the last minute; Gordon Brown did likewise in 2010. Whereas an Election every four years had been established as the norm, both men chose to push their administrations to the five-year limit, desperate to cling on to power in the anticipation of defeat. Since 2010, of course, five years has now been enshrined in law and Theresa May seemed set to adhere to this rule. But, lest we forget, she inherited a mandate from her predecessor, who walked the plank barely a year after winning outright; she also inherited his far-from impressive majority. Hanging on for another three years appeared a bit silly, especially when current polls have the Tories fifteen-twenty points ahead of Labour. Why not go for it?
Of course, these are not ‘normal’ times and this will inevitably be seen as ‘the Brexit General Election’, but this has been a remarkable few years for the electorate – 2014: The Scottish Independence Referendum; 2015: The General Election; 2016: The EU Referendum; and now, 2017: The General Election. With the SNP demanding another independence referendum, Northern Ireland’s Executive in disarray, and Article 50 having just been triggered amidst ongoing Brexit divisions, I suppose the only comparable scenario in living memory that springs to mind is the similarly uncertain era of the mid-70s.
In the wake of the Three-Day Week in February 1974, when Ted Heath called a snap General Election after just three-and-a-half years in office, it was a gamble he lost; confronted by a country seemingly held hostage by powerful unions (particularly the miners), Sailor Ted figured the electorate would echo his intentions, but it didn’t, and his nemesis Harold Wilson returned to power. However, Labour’s tiny majority led to a second General Election in October the same year, when Heath again suffered defeat. Two General Elections in 1974 were then followed by the EEC Referendum in June 1975. After all that breathless action (and a fair amount of voter fatigue), it was then another four years before the hustings were occupied again.
Some could view Theresa May’s decision as a similar gamble to that taken by Heath 43 years ago. Whilst her party’s points lead over Labour is unparalleled since Margaret Thatcher took on Michael Foot, May has so far been seen as something of a ditherer and her decision today is a U-turn on her stated stance re the Fixed Parliaments Act. There is also a surprise element relating to the fact that the controversial constituency boundary changes, which will hugely benefit the Conservatives, won’t come into effect until October, something that would have been to her advantage had she held out till the autumn. Moreover, not every Tory is happy with May’s Brexit approach, so her party is not necessarily as united as she’d like us to believe.
Prime Ministers who take office following the resignation of their predecessor are usually presented with the tricky option of either serving out their predecessor’s term and hoping they can strengthen the previous mandate when the time comes or capitalising on their ‘honeymoon period’ by going for a snap Election and guaranteeing a full term for themselves in their own right. When Harold MacMillan succeeded the disgraced Anthony Eden in 1957, he hung on for over two-and-a-half years before calling an Election, which he won; Alec Douglas-Home waited a year after MacMillan’s departure – and lost.
Infamously, Jim Callaghan waited three years after taking over from Harold Wilson and paid the price. Most pundits reckon had he called a General Election in the autumn of 1978, he’d have won it; he delayed the decision till the following spring, by which time the nation had endured the Winter of Discontent, and handed victory to Thatcher. Gordon Brown might have clinched it had he done likewise when he experienced his only moment of popularity after superseding Tony Blair, but he too dithered, the Credit Crunch hit, and Brown never recovered. It’s rarely an easy choice.
Two-thirds of MPs are needed to seal Theresa May’s intentions for 8 June, but Jeremy Corbyn has indicated the Labour Party will support her decision. It goes without saying that some in Labour are eager for this Election because they feel their party will be annihilated at the polls, a disaster they can then hold Jezza wholly responsible for and finally oust him. On the other hand, the Corbynistas believe their man can do no wrong and are unswerving in their conviction that he can defeat the Tories, possibly by joining with the remnants of the Lib Dems (not that this would significantly boost their numbers, mind). Scotland obviously doesn’t figure in this wildly optimistic scenario.
So, here we go again, sooner than most of us reckoned, but in these turbulent times for the nation, perhaps apt. I thought the country would vote Remain and I couldn’t foresee Donald Trump becoming President, so I shan’t be making any rash predictions this time. Mind you, I’d be extremely surprised at any other result than a Conservative landslide. I hope I’m wrong (again).
© The Editor