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7 March 2017

Why Theresa May still won’t call an early general election

A snap contest would undermine the Prime Minister's trustworthiness and squander Brexit negotiating time.

By George Eaton

Ever since Theresa May entered office, Labour MPs have been on guard for an early election. During a recent phone call, I interrupted one backbencher preparing leaflets for a snap contest. “You’d kick yourself if she went and you weren’t ready,” he explained. To the opposition, the Prime Minister’s seeming refusal to pounce on their wounded party is baffling. Veterans of the Brown era believe that May is repeating the error made by their former master.

Some on the Conservative side take the same view. The reasons are manifold: the government has a working majority of just 17 but the polls promise one of more than 100. The economy has outperformed post-referendum expectations (but living standards will soon be squeezed). Labour is led by Jeremy Corbyn, the most unpopular opposition leader in recent history (but will he be gone by 2020?) Ukip is at war with itself. The Liberal Democrats are still recovering from near-extinction. And the Tories, by historic standards, are unusually united. Rather than hoping that their pre-eminence lasts, why not entrench it?

In today’s Daily Telegraph, former Conservative leader William Hague takes up the cry, urging May to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and trigger an early election. “We have a new Prime Minister and Cabinet facing the most complex challenges of modern times: Brexit negotiations, the Trump administration, the threat from Scottish nationalists, and many other issues,” he argues.

“There is no doubt that they would be in a stronger position to take the country through these challenges successfully if they had a large and decisive majority in the Commons and a new full term ahead of them.” 

After suggestions that Hague could be “pitch rolling” for May, No.10 has replied that an early election is “not something she plans to do or wishes to do.” Though this doesn’t prevent one if circumstances change, it’s a firm denial. And there are good reasons to believe that May isn’t bluffing.

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The Prime Minister and her team have long defined her as a politician who “means what she says”. As soon as she launched her Conservative leadership campaign, May vowed that she would not seek an early election (a promise some predicted would be swiftly discard). After the Scottish referendum, the tumultuous 2015 election and the Brexit vote, she sincerely believed that a period of stability was required. To disregard this view on the basis of favourable opinion polls would exemplify the gameplaying for which she regularly denounces others. Though May would likely gain seats, she would risk losing trust (a quality that No.10 regards as invaluable during the Brexit negotiations).

But delaying a contest is not only a matter of honour. Were May to stage an election shortly after triggering Article 50, she would, as a No.10 aide pointed out, lose valuable months of negotiating time. Though her team confess that governing with a small majority is “not easy”, May has yet to be defeated in the Commons (MPs are likely to overturn the Lords’ amendments to the Brexit bill). Conservative MPs predict that tougher times lie ahead but this, they say, is all the more reason not to go early. Far better to reserve the option of a snap election for 2019 – when May could really need one.

After ruling out an early election, Brown was forced to deny that the polls had influenced his decision. 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 so far navigated the election question suggests that her gamble may pay off.