Nine years ago this month, a new prime minister returned from the summer recess to demands for an early general election. Having been crowned by his party, Gordon Brown was urged by friends and foes to seek a mandate from the country. Among them was Theresa May. “He has no democratic mandate,” the then shadow Commons leader wrote in a ConservativeHome piece on 31 August 2007. “He has a reputation tainted by his failures after a decade in office. And he has no new ideas. An early election? Bring it on.”
The Labour poll bounce that followed Brown’s appointment led to extensive preparations for a contest (at an estimated cost of £1m). But spooked by George Osborne’s inheritance tax cut pledge made at the Conservative party conference and ominous polling in marginal seats, Brown retreated.
History has recorded it as one of his worst decisions. “I do feel that not going with the election was a disaster,” Brown’s former consigliere Ed Balls said recently. Labour would likely have won enough seats to remain in government and force David Cameron’s resignation as Conservative leader.
This precedent is cited by those Tories who are now urging May to hold an early general election. The Conservatives have a Commons majority of just 12: the smallest of any single-party government since 1974. And the number of ministers sacked by May exceeds that number. Such a narrow advantage makes parliamentary defeats and policy reversals inevitable. John Major, with a superior majority of 21, had his premiership wrecked by recalcitrant backbenchers.
Unlike Brown, the new Prime Minister can be confident of victory if she goes to the country. The Tories have sustained a double-digit poll lead. Jeremy Corbyn has lost the confidence of more than 80 per cent of Labour MPs and recorded the worst ratings of any opposition leader in history.
Despite this, Corbyn will almost certainly be re-elected on 24 September, drawing his mandate from members rather than the MPs. His opponents, and even some supporters, fear that under his leadership, Labour could be reduced to around 150 seats – its lowest total since 1931. Even so, some Labour MPs privately pine for a snap contest in the hope that it will rid them of Corbyn.
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.
Yet she has no intention of doing so. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” May announced as much at the launch of her Conservative leadership campaign on 30 June (“There should be no general election until 2020”). Voters, however, are accustomed to hearing a politician say one thing and do another. May’s allies are insistent that she will defy this trend. The Prime Minister “means what she says and says what she means”, a frontbencher told me.
Brown similarly cast himself as an unspun, straight-talking prime minister. Yet his game-playing over the election date tarnished his reputation. By keeping her word, May can succeed where he failed. Although she could cite the desire to win her own mandate, an early election would risk appearing ruthlessly partisan.
Having awarded the Tories a majority only 16 months ago, polls show that the public has little desire to vote again. Many newly elected Conservatives, fearing a Brexit-inspired Ukip surge, or even a Liberal Democrat revival, are similarly reluctant to face them.
It is instead the epic task of EU withdrawal that will absorb May’s energies. Her much-mocked declaration that “Brexit means Brexit” was a necessary first step. It reassured Leave voters and Tory MPs that there would be no backsliding. Those who have demanded a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, such as the Labour leadership contender Owen Smith, have been unambiguously dismissed. “May’s on the right track,” the Tory MP Bill Cash, Brussels’ most redoubtable parliamentary foe, told me.
The UK will almost certainly leave the EU. But the manner in which it will do so is uncertain. The Prime Minister is committed to imposing “controls on free movement”: the pre-eminent demand of many Brexit voters. This negates the possibility of a Norwegian-style arrangement, under which the UK would retain full membership of the single market while accepting the free movement of people. May’s mission is to determine the residual degree of “access”.
The political imperative of limiting free movement competes with the economic imperative of protecting the City of London. At cabinet level, Brexiteers emphasise the former, while the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, stresses the latter. An early election would force May to resolve this ambiguity. By avoiding a precipitous rush to the polls, she has bought herself valuable time.
In the Conservative leadership contest, May was the dependable tortoise who overtook the flashier hares. Offered the chance to multiply her majority by perhaps as much as ten, she has so far demonstrated considerable patience.
After ruling out an early election, Gordon Brown was forced to deny that the polls had influenced his decision. Theresa May can acknowledge the Conservatives’ consistent lead in the polls while maintaining that she has a job to do. The ease with which she has navigated the election question suggests that her gamble may pay off.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war