May would be mad to hold a snap general election

"It wouldn't do the prime minister any good and it wouldn't do the country any good either.|"
"It wouldn't do the prime minister any good and it wouldn't do the country any good either."
Ian Dunt By

The chatter over a snap general election refuses to go away. It first built up during the Tory leadership contest. Then again before the Budget, until Philip Hammond's self-employed NICs policy suggested the government was very much not in election mode. And now it arises once more, with reports of a May 4th date.

The election almost certainly won't happen. If it did happen, it would not help the country or the prime minister.

Of course, the temptation is there. Labour could be utterly destroyed. They have no leadership, no strategy, no basic thinking going on at the top of the party at all. They are an empty room. Their right wing is largely without ideas, their left wing is completely insane, and they have entryists trying to finally take full control. They are there for the taking.


May also currently enjoys the support of the right-wing press, on the basis that she is delivering Brexit. She could take the opportunity now to get an election under her belt with that support set in stone. After March 2019 the dynamics will be different and, with Brexit less of an issue, that backing cannot be taken for granted.

No.10 could conclude that a snap general election might consolidate her hold on power. It would get rid of the troublesome Tory backbenchers on the party's extreme and moderate wings who are increasingly bullish about that small majority of hers. It would allow her to go to Brussels with a strong public mandate for talks. And it wouldn't even use up that much negotiating time - French and German elections are distracting European leaders in the first six months of Article 50 anyway. Britain could quickly slip another election under the table and come up smiling in time for substantive talks in the autumn.

But the incentives on May are more complicated than this. She would be unwise to pursue a general election. And if she did pursue it, it would not help in Article 50. It would make things worse.

One of the first things May ever said as a Tory leadership candidate was that there would be no election until 2020. Since then she has successfully cultivated a no-nonsense image of firm-thwack-of-strong-matron decision-making. Her actions have actually been hopelessly fudged and strategically counter-productive, but this image has stuck and is delivering her very strong poll results. She has been highly successful - much to the dismay of people like myself - in using this to present hard Brexit as the only intuitive response to the referendum result.

Holding an election would put all that hard reputational work at risk. She would be asked why she is U-turning on one of her very first promises. She would be asked why a mandate for Brexit was required now, just as she launches Article 50 negotiations, when it wasn't before, in the long half year she had to play with since becoming Tory leader. She'd be asked why she thinks she has no mandate for Brexit, given she just succeeded in getting the Article 50 bill through parliament unamended. She would be asked what had changed and her only convincing answers would be self-serving.

And all the while she would be getting into the really murky mechanics of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act. She'd need to call a vote of no-confidence in her own government, one which some of her own MPs might not support. Try explaining that to the man on the Clapham omnibus. Or she could be seeking two-thirds support in the Commons, which she might get or might not, given the way the Labour civil war has mixed up opposition MPs' incentives.

If the British public are asked to go to the polls, they are entitled to expect that there is a good reason for it. In the last few years they've voted on AV, the Scots on independence once and now possibly again, the 2015 general election and the Brexit referendum. That's rather a lot. A prime minister asking them to do so again better make sure they do not think it is for self-interested reasons. But it would be hard to escape that impression on the basis of May's own record.

This might be a risk worth taking. But what would May get at the end of that process? A defeat might force Jeremy Corbyn to step down and that would be a disaster for the government. Faced with a troublesome parliamentary Conservative party and a human vacuum as an opposition leader, May would be sensible to pick the human vacuum. His presence expands her room to manoeuvre more than a small majority decreases it. Even on her own terms, a snap election makes no sense.

Putting May's personal fortunes aside for one moment, would having an election be in the national interest? After all, reducing the power of Tory backbenchers would mean the John Redwoods and the Bill Cashs of the world have less influence over the prime minister. This could buy her room to make more concessions to Europe and therefore emerge with a better deal - or avoid risking a no-deal scenario. Perhaps even Brexit critics should support it.

This is all true, as far as it goes, but an election would also reduce the power of moderate Tory figures. These MPs, with some honourable exceptions, have been cowed into silence on Brexit (although not on other matters, like the Dubs amendment, sex education and grammar schools). That might not last long however. As the economic effects start to bite over the course of Article 50 and the constitutional ramifications become day-to-day news, they may discover their bravery once more. There are two sides to the slim-majority coin.

The reality is that May's real concern is not Tory backbenchers. It is the right wing press. They back her only on the basis that she will deliver hard Brexit. You can see how quickly she folds when they turn against her, as over the Budget. And the press will not change at a general election. The incentives on her will therefore remain largely unchanged, except that she will be able to claim that the election result is a double-mandate for hard Brexit, when in fact it is a mandate for 'not-Corbyn'.

Holding an election now, at the exact moment we trigger Article 50, would also use up valuable negotiating time in Europe and reduce our already precarious standing with European leaders. Sure, France and Germany are distracted, but those elections have been on the schedule for a long time. For a country to initiate talks and then suddenly retreat into a domestic election campaign would be viewed as deranged and solipsistic - both charges the UK already faces in Brussels. It also rules out any attempt to secure meaningful talks before the German elections are over.

There is simply no level at which the snap election idea makes sense. It is barmy. In today's political climate that of course does not rule it out. But the reality is that it wouldn't do the prime minister any good and it wouldn't do the country any good either.

Update 11:45am: Shortly after this article was published, the prime minster's spokesperson confirmed there would be no snap general election, saying: "There isn't going to be one."

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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