Just as I was planning a short series of longer blogs on political topics, the shit hit the fan and left me with a lot more to write about. No rest for the wicked, eh? Politics move quickly, but this last twelve months or so has really been a year of rapid change. The biggest thing to ruin my original essay structures has been the announcement of a snap election. Of course, there’s a lot to say about this, and it would be most useful if I said it all before polling day (8th June, if you didn’t know), so I’d better get cracking.
The big issue at the start is the very reasonable question of, “Why is this happening?” Teresa May said repeatedly that she would not call a snap election. It’s not how our constitution works any more for a start. Now that we have fixed-term parliaments, it requires a 2/3 majority of all members of Parliament (not just those present at the debate) to dissolve for an election. Snap elections motivated by political opportunism are supposed to be a thing of the past. Of course, the obvious result of this is the situation we had after the EU referendum, where a leader of a governing party is ousted in favour of a new leader who doesn’t necessarily believe in the manifesto the party was elected on. Add to this that majorities will inevitably be eroded by by-elections over the course of a parliament, and it’s inevitable that a weak government can end up as a minority government. So why has May asked for a snap election (that Labour have agreed to despite it not really being in their best political interests)?
Needless to say, everyone’s got their tinfoil hat on. Every commentator in real or social media has chosen their one reason that is May’s chief motivation – usually the one that they believe is most damning to the Tories. Really, though, it’s a combination of factors. And those factors hardly make for damning reading.
A big one, of course, is the fact that around 30 Conservative MPs were under investigation for election spending irregularities. It’s true that this was probably a big motivator – if your majority in Parliament is only 12, then 29 seats potentially going to by-election is a concern even if you expect to win in most cases. Bear in mind that, although a criminal investigation was under way, in the grand scheme of things this wasn’t some great malicious election fraud. A national campaign bus with its touring activists was listed against national spending rather than local spending, meaning that there may have been a technical breach of election spending caps in those regions. And the rules on election spending are a bit arcane, so it could easily have been a mistake. I wouldn’t have expected actual criminal charges to be brought (and it was announced a few weeks ago that they wouldn’t be), but by-elections would have been reasonable in all 29 constituencies involved. With 29 constituencies up for grabs, why not go the whole hog?
Number two on the list of reasons to go to the polls is, of course, the exit negotiations with the EU. Knowing what the timing was going to be (two years of talks following our notice of exit being given in Spring this year), the fixed-term parliaments we have would mean that negotiations would reach their official limit in Spring 2019 only for us to elect a new government (potentially) in May 2020. It’s quite likely that the negotiations will still be ongoing. Or even stalled without agreement because of the potential of a new government. And even if the negotiations did conclude one way or another, an incoming government would have a big fat disruption handed to them and no way of predicting what happens next. The double uncertainty would doubtlessly wipe yet another 20% off the value of the pound.
And then there are the internal machinations of the Conservative Party itself. Any political party is a coalition, and all our major parties have conflicting interests within them. Internal divisions of ideology are ripping the parliamentary Labour Party apart at the moment. And opposing feelings about Europe made John Major’s Conservatives untenable by 1996, made David Cameron put us to the polls in an ill-conceived referendum just to shut up the back-benchers, and are continuing to hamstring Teresa May’s Conservatives now. The problem that the centrists in the Conservative Party have is that they find themselves in leadership positions because they are the ones with electable policies. But there are dinosaurs (John Major called them “bastards”, so maybe we should use that as an official term…) on the back benches that still live in the 1950s, but are in the safest of Conservative safe seats. And, boy, do they like to throw their weight around. The people who want a hard break with the EU think that everyone who voted to leave wanted a hard break. Actually, this is not true. But the hard-liners on the Conservative back benches think like Nigel Farage and have been emboldened by the referendum result. And the party has deposed a sitting Prime Minister before. The upshot of that is that, with a Conservative majority of only 12, May has to negotiate with the Bastards to get things done. If the Conservatives were generally more numerous in Parliament, May couldn’t be held so easily to ransom.
Sure. It’s a U-turn. May said she wouldn’t call a snap election and now she has. But there are three good reasons for calling this election, and only a fool wouldn’t do so with these three factors crowding in. Are U-turns admissions of weakness? I don’t believe so. But in this case, it might be. It will, however, allow Mrs. May to build a much-needed position of strength.
Nota bene: I will be modding the comments on wordpress and facebook heavily. The rules are here. I will delete comments ruthlessly.