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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 May, who told no one (including her husband) when she learned that Andrea Leadsom had withdrawn from the Conservative leadership contest, is a politician who can keep a secret.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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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