Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. George Osborne's optimism disappears in autumn statement (Guardian)

The chancellor's bright-eyed optimism that served as the coalition's defining mission turns to dust in the Commons, writes Jonathan Freedland.

2. Time to use room for manoeuvre (Financial Times)

It is specious for Osborne to blame events beyond government control, says Martin Wolf.

3. We can see clearly on smog. So why not CO2? (Times) (£)

The arguments of climate-change sceptics are eerily reminiscent of those made by opponents of the Clean Air Act, writes David Aaronovitch.

4. Chancellor makes best of bad job (Financial Times)

There may be worse to come but Labour has been left scratching its head, says Janan Ganesh.

5. A seasonal warning on rape? Don't ask a Met policeman (Guardian)

There's nothing here to reduce sex crime or even any admission of officers' failure – just hyper-caution for the yet-to-be-raped, says Zoe Williams.

6. The day the Chancellor reneged on his promise (Daily Telegraph)

Osborne’s fiscal gutlessness in this budget shows a failure to engage with the enormity of the crisis, argues Peter Oborne.

7. Old rivalries stir in Japan and Korea (Financial Times)

The differences in the elections in Asia’s second and fourth-largest economies are striking, writes David Pilling.

8. We may never learn to love the Chancellor, but the alternative would be so much worse (Daily Mail)

Osborne's medicine may be harsh but Ed Balls would be economic poison, says Max Hastings.

9. Phoney war with Syria is better than a real one (Independent)

Signs that Assad might use his chemical weapons could change the rules, says an Independent editorial.

10. A global battle for internet freedom puts Leveson in perspective (Guardian)

There's no reason ethical standards have to slip online, writes Timothy Garton Ash. The real challenge for journalism is how to make the internet pay.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.