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20 March 2017

Avoiding a snap election helps Theresa May – and George Osborne, too

The political interests of Theresa May and the man she sacked as Chancellor may align, for once. 

By Stephen Bush

If she’s said it once, she’s said it a thousand times: there will not be an early election. Downing Street has once again moved to quell speculation that Theresa May will U-Turn on her pledge to see out the remaining three years of David Cameron’s term.

That decision locks the Prime Minister into three years in which her agenda will be frustrated repeatedly and her administration will likely become synonymous with the word “U-Turn”. Though, as I explain in this morning’s email, not all of those issues will go away with a bigger Conservative majority, and the damage to Theresa May’s reputation, whether deserved or not, for caution and an aversion to game-playing, is probably a greater loss in the long term than anything she won’t be able to pass these next three years.

There’s also a bigger win to be had by holding the election on 7 May 2020: the London mayoralty. Although Sadiq Khan runs ahead of Jeremy Corbyn as far as his popularity in the polls is concerned, as I explained at the time, as far as actual votes were concerned, he did about as well as a generic Labour candidate did on the night. Khan did best among young, educated professionals, ethnic minorities and middle-class public sector workers. That, before the wasting effect of the referendum and Corbyn’s decision to whip his MPs in support of triggering Article 50, is basically the Corbyn coalition in a nutshell.

There were only two areas in which Khan could be said to have outrun Jeremy Corbyn in 2016: among Jewish voters, who rejected Labour at local elections held on the same day but who swung back to Khan; and in his home seat of Tooting, where he enjoyed a “native son” bounce. So if Labour do worse in 2020 than they did in 2016, there is reason to believe that Khan is in trouble. Indeed, every poll since 2017 has shown Labour way behind in London not only on their 2016 performance but their 2015 one as well.

Adding to Khan’s difficulties, Labour constituencies got closer to their general election turnouts than Conservative ones did, on the whole. A London mayoral race fought on general election turnout probably helps his Tory challenger, though the effects are marginal.

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Khan’s hope will be that he can do across the city in 2020 what he did in Tooting in 2016 – massively outrun a generic Labour candidate on the strength of his personal vote. Performing as well as a generic Labour candidate outside Tooting was enough to win in 2016 – it almost certainly won’t be in 2020. 

But that gets harder if the mayoral election is held on the same day as the general one, not least because the evidence from other local elections held on the same day is that people tend to vote for the top of the ticket and then vote across the same party line across their remaining ballots. That has hurt third parties and defeated oppositions on general election day before. (Not least Labour in 2015, where the party lost seats at a local level as well as a parliamentary one.)

After the 2007 Scottish elections, when elections to the Scottish Parliament and to local authorities were held on the same day, causing confusion and chaos, it was ruled that it was best practice to hold contests with different electoral systems on different days. (That’s why the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have had their terms extended to five years not four, so they will not coincide with elections to Westminster.) But there’s no legal obligation to do this, so expected the Conservatives to do whatever best suits their interests.

Sadiq Khan’s best approach is to carve out a bigger personal brand for himself, in the hope of winning over enough people who will vote Conservative at Westminster but like him at City Hall.

But there’s an obstacle to that, too: George Osborne. The Conservative MP now edits London’s only newspaper, the Evening Standard, and may fancy a crack at the top job himself.

So Sadiq Khan’s path to victory in 2020 is narrower than the bookies’ odds suggest.