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The greatest gamble for Theresa May was not calling an early general election

The Prime Minister has seized her best chance to win a super-majority. 2020 may not have been so favourable.

In August 2007, as Gordon Brown deliberated whether to call an early general election, Theresa May demanded that he do so. “He has no democratic mandate,” the then shadow Commons leader declared.

But when May was similarly anointed as Prime Minister in July 2016, she had a different view. Having stated at her campaign launch, “There should be no general election until 2020,” May insisted, as did her aides, that she would keep her word. Voters were accustomed to politicians saying one thing and doing another. May, however, would be different. After the Scottish independence referendum, the tumultuous 2015 general election and the EU referendum, she sincerely believed that a period of stability was required. The Prime Minister’s steadfastness even as the Conservatives’ poll lead increased was cited as proof of her aversion to “political game-playing”.

By announcing her intention to hold a general election on 8 June, May has shown how well she can play the game. Even more than Nicola Sturgeon’s recent statement on a second Scottish referendum, the Prime Minister’s announcement caught Westminster off-guard. May, who told no one (including her husband) when she learned that Andrea Leadsom had withdrawn from the Conservative leadership contest, is a politician who can keep a secret.

May’s Downing Street statement sought to pre-empt charges of hypocrisy by accusing Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats of “political game-playing” over Brexit. It was a decision taken “in the national interest”, not a partisan ploy.

Downing Street aides cite three reasons as central to the Prime Minister’s change of heart (which followed her recent walking holiday in Wales): the chance for a re-elected Conservative government which would strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, the threat by Labour to vote against the withdrawal deal, and “the window of opportunity” open as the EU determines its negotiating timetable. Few expect significant talks to begin until after the second round of the French presidential election in May and the German election in September.

But the numbers were also crucial to May’s judgement. The weekend before her announcement, two polls gave the Conservatives a 21-point lead over Labour – the party’s largest in government since 1983. Should the Tories repeat this performance at the ballot box, they would win a majority of roughly 150 seats.

Labour MPs have long feared that their party will perform still worse than the polls suggest. Surveys have historically overstated support for the opposition, and Jeremy Corbyn has yet to be placed before the electorate. The Conservatives have a meticulously prepared attack dossier charting the Labour leader’s and John McDonnell’s past support for the IRA. Having overwhelmingly voted against Corbyn’s leadership last summer, Labour MPs will struggle to make a credible case for him to be prime minister. Indeed, even Corbyn struggles to do so. Asked by the BBC whether he was “the next prime minister”, he flatly replied: “If we win this election, yes.”

May has seized what will likely be her best chance to win a super-majority. Corbyn is the most unpopular opposition leader in polling history (but may not have fought 2020). The economy has outperformed post-referendum expectations (but a squeeze on living standards is on the way). And Ukip, which finished third in 2015 in votes, has morphed from a political party into a political fight club.

There are potential downsides to May’s choice. As I recently revealed, private polling for the Conservatives by the strategist Lynton Crosby (who will manage the party’s campaign, as he did in 2015) showed that the Tories would lose most of the 27 seats they gained from the Liberal Democrats two years ago. MPs from Devon and Cornwall pleaded with May not to go to the country. But however large their losses to the Lib Dems (who recruited 4,000 new members in a few hours after May’s election announcement), the Tories are confident that their gains from Labour will compensate.

Conservative MPs identify other opportunities. In Scotland, the Tories are polling 14 points ahead of Labour (compared to 9 points behind in 2015) and could make gains from the SNP. Should May be returned as Prime Minister, no longer will Nicola Sturgeon be able to gibe that she has no mandate to block a second referendum in 2019.

Election victory would also strengthen May’s hand against the most formidable opposition she faces: her MPs. The Tories’ working majority of 17 seats (the smallest of any single-party government since 1974) is vulnerable to future rebellions by Remainers and Leavers alike. The former are aggrieved by May’s vow to withdraw the UK from the single market and the customs union; the latter by her support for a transitional deal potentially involving continued free movement and European jurisdiction.

Since becoming Prime Minister, May has struggled to reconcile her distinctive vision with the 2015 manifesto that she inherited from David Cameron. The Conservatives’ reckless “tax lock” pledge forced the abandonment of the National Insurance increase. Expensive commitments such as the “triple lock” on state pensions endure. Grammar schools, a manifesto breach, would likely be rejected by MPs. May, who has long treated Brexit as a proxy mandate, now has a chance to win a genuine one.

Should the Prime Minister’s judgement be wrong, she will become the shortest-serving occupant of No 10 since Bonar Law in 1923. More likely, it will be vindicated. The electorate may resent being forced back to the polls, but few will vote on this basis. Labour’s collapse, Brexit, the Lib Dem resurgence – politics has been transformed since 2015. But parliament has not. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down if Labour loses the general election?

Defeat at the polls might not be the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

The latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Corbyn could become prime minister. If that prospect doesn’t materialise, however, the question is: will Corbyn follow the majority of his predecessors and resign, or will he hang on in office?

Will Corbyn stand down? The rules

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists): Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will Corbyn stand down? The membership

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

Will Corbyn stand down? The rumours

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats).

Will Corbyn stand down? The verdict

Given his struggles to manage his own MPs and the example of other leaders, it would be remarkable if Corbyn did not stand down should Labour lose the general election. However, staying on after a vote of no-confidence in 2016 was also remarkable, and the mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession.

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