March election: for and against

The case for an early election is stronger

The weekend brought more speculation over a 25 March election, with Labour officials reported to have told Gordon Brown that the party machine is ready to go.

Ed Balls appeared to pour cold water on the idea on GMTV this morning when he said: "In all my discussions with Gordon Brown, with Peter Mandelson, it's never, ever come up, the idea of a March election. But we are ready whenever." However, those who follow Claud Cockburn's advice to "never believe anything until it's officially denied" may disagree.

Here's a summary of the case for and against a March election:

For

1. Official figures due out in January are expected to show that the economy has finally emerged from recession. Brown could argue that Labour's fiscal stimulus prevented a depression. By May, the economic recovery may have slowed.

2. It would allow Brown to go to the country before tax increases such as the new 50p top rate kick in next April. For an idea of what a difference this can make, compare the reaction to the abolition of 10p tax before and after it was implemented.

3. The Budget could be delayed until after the election, allowing Brown and Alistair Darling to avoid another set of universally negative headlines over tax rises, spending cuts and the deficit. The earliest possible date for the 2010 Budget is 9 March, after the last possible date -- 1 March -- on which Brown could call a March election..

4. An early election would limit the amount of time the Tories have left to spend the millions they have raised. During the election campaign all parties are subject to spending caps.

5. A March election would diminish the impression that Brown has had to be dragged kicking and screaming from Downing Street. The longer he waits, the weaker he seems (John Major syndrome).

6. A May election would allow Eurosceptics to punish the Tories over their Lisbon U-turn by voting for Ukip in the local elections while still backing David Cameron in the general election. An earlier vote would rob them of this option. Recent polls have shown support for Ukip rising from 2 per cent to 4 per cent.

Against

1. By postponing the Budget until after the election, Labour could be credibly accused of hiding spending cuts from the voters. The Conservatives could damn Brown as "the man who went to the country without a Budget".

2. The dark nights could lower voter turnout. Paul Waugh notes: "Given that most people vote after work -- and that on 25 March 2010, the sunset time even in London will be 6.22pm -- I wouldn't put my house on it."

3. An early election would dramatically reduce turnout for the 6 May local elections and could further eat away at Labour's councillor base.

4. A March election followed by local elections on 6 May would cost taxpayers more. Alex Smith, over at LabourList, argues: "[T]he cost of holding two elections within six weeks of each other would be excessive -- and would be deemed to be excessive by the public."

I'm in favour of a March election, but Labour MPs must avoid talking up an early election until they get confirmation from the top. Just remember what happened last time . . .

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.