Following on from yesterday’s shock announcement that the Prime Minister wants to hold an early election, MPs today voted by a margin of 522 to 13 to take the country to the polls in early June.
‘But wait’, I hear you cry, ‘I thought one of the “achievements” of the 2010 coalition was to fix Parliamentary terms at five years to prevent this sort of thing?’ As Sir Humphrey would say: yes… and no. The legislation has a get-out clause which enables the House of Commons to pass a motion requiring an early general election if:
the number of members who vote in favour of the motion is a number equal to or greater than two thirds of the number of seats in the House (including vacant seats)1
Since the majority required is based on the number of seats rather than the number of votes, two thirds of MPs have to actively vote in favour - any abstentions effectively count as a vote against. This usually stops the governing party from calling an election – even Tony Blair at the height of his power could not quite command a two thirds majority in the Commons. In this case however, Labour had already indicated that they would support an early general election and produced the relevant votes on request.
The key questions therefore are why did Theresa May propose an early general election and why did Jeremy Corbyn agree?
For May an early election probably seems like a no-brainer – she is riding high in the polls both on a party and personal basis, with Labour trailing by around twenty percentage points and Jeremy Corbyn by around thirty. She may well increase her majority as a result – or at least weaken the Labour party2 – but I don’t think that is her primary goal.
At present, the two years of negotiations over Brexit are likely to finish in 2019, shortly before the next general election was due. It’s unlikely that the result will satisfy anyone – hardline Brexiteers will cry foul that the EU has ‘screwed us over’ (and they do have us over a barrel), whilst Remoaners like myself will be unsatisfied with anything other than a revocation of the Article 50 notification. By bringing the general election forward, May has bought herself a couple of years post-Brexit to sort out the mess and hopefully convince people that it wasn’t so bad after all.
So for May this feels like a card game where she represents the casino and has also stacked the deck for good measure. With Corbyn the case for supporting an early election is less clear. He is languishing in the polls, with few people (even many Labour supporters) considering him prime ministerial material, and his party is not doing much better. There is a slim chance of galvanising an anti-Tory/Brexit vote which could see Labour back in power – probably as a minority government – but I think that will only happen if Corbyn can persuade that section of the electorate to vote Labour rather than Liberal Democrat, Green or SNP. Anyone who is steadfastly against Brexit will also be considering the fact that Labour voted in favour of the Article 50 notification and therefore is almost as unappealing as the Conservatives in that respect.
In his defence though, it is difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to respond to a government request to hold an early general election. If he agrees he is rubber-stamping their decision, and if he refuses he can be accused of being afraid of losing (in this case a perfectly rational fear, but that is not how it would be portrayed). Labour has also been publishing various policies recently, so hopefully has a manifesto in the works, and their finances are in reasonable shape.
As for the other parties, I think this is a welcome development for the Liberal Democrats, as they seem to be bouncing back strongly from their disastorous result in the previous election. People I know within the party have admitted that they would have liked more time to prepare and build their supporter base, but apparently they have also had thousands of new members join in the past 48 hours – if nothing else this will boost their coffers. It’s unlikely that the SNP will benefit in any meaningful way, as there aren’t many Conservative MPs to unseat in Scotland, and I don’t think the Green Party will move beyond their solitary seat in Brighton.
Overall I think that the unfortunate position we will be in after 8th June is a continuation of the current authoritarian government, possibly with a slightly increased majority. It is possible that May has ‘done a Cameron’ – calling a vote that she feels certain to win, only to lose by the slimmest of margins – but that is probably wishful thinking along the lines of hoping that the Supreme Court would allow the devolved regions to veto the Article 50 notification.