What’s that coming over the hill? Is it an election, is it an election?
The government’s horror of a week and the continuing travails of the Labour Party means that once again, the conversation at Westminster is turning to the question of whether or not Theresa May should go for an early election. Party chair Patrick McLoughlin, chief whip Gavin Williamson and the PM’s PPS, George Hollingbery, are reported to have discussed 4 May as a possible date.
On the minus side, you have the risk that an early election would damage the PM’s “steady-as-she-goes” brand, the danger to Conservative MPs with a strong Liberal Democrat presence in second place, and what it does to May’s line that a Scottish referendum would represent dangerous political gameplaying when Brexit should be the priority.
On the plus side, you have, well, everything else. The government can’t really do anything, hemmed in as it is by the undeliverable promises made in 2015 and its small parliamentary majority. In addition to the partial U-Turn on business rates and the complete about-face on national insurance, the whips’ office expects that there will be more to come on the new funding formula for schools and on the grammar schools programme as well.
Andrew Gwynne, one half of Labour’s new election chief, has said that it would be “difficult” for Labour to vote against a dissolution in the Commons, removing that hurdle.
An early election would also mean that the government would avoid having to re-run any of the elections caught up in the election expenses case in 2019, when the political situation may be very different than it is now.
But there are a couple of reasons why an early election might not be the cure-all that we currently expect. Yes, if the polls are right, the Conservatives will be back in with a bigger majority, and, as far as grammar schools are concerned, a Lords-proof manifesto commitment. That makes some of the domestic agenda easier.
But the real problem with the rates rise, the national insurance increase and the schools formula is that in the last parliament, the government maximised the extent to which it could keep cutting spending without hitting the constituencies of Conservative MPs. That approach was running out of road by 2015 and that problem will be enhanced not diminished by a landslide intake of Tory MPs. (Ditto the school funding formula, which is in trouble because too many Conservative MPs are the losers. That won’t change if the majority is 16 or 160.)
And then there’s the fact that whenever May goes to the election, her majority will have a pretty large asterisk next to it in the shape of the present-day Labour party. She will not return to Westminster to a horde of new Tory MPs who believe they owe their seats to her or to the parts of her programme they dislike. So even if – and it remains a big “if” – the PM does opt for an early election, her political problems won’t all vanish in a new House of Commons.