When news broke on the morning of 18 April that Theresa May would be making a surprise statement outside 10 Downing Street, it created a febrile mood at Westminster. Was she about to resign? Would she make an important concession in the run-up to the Brexit negotiations? Would she be calling a general election?
In the event, the Prime Minister did indeed announce her intention to call an election on 8 June. “I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion”, she said, “. . . but now I have concluded [it is] the only way to guarantee certainty . . . for the years ahead”.
In my view, it was an eminently sensible decision, even though in making it May has been accused of undermining her reputation for caution. Since she became Prime Minister in July last year, May and her closest advisers have repeatedly said there would be no early general election. Britain has a parliamentary system and the Prime Minister felt no need for an explicitly personal mandate.
More pertinently, May likes to keep her word and dislikes game-playing of the kind in which Gordon Brown indulged when, shortly after becoming prime minister in 2007, he made preparations for an early general election only to pull back after being spooked by the opinion polls. Brown’s reputation never recovered from the absurd equivocation.
So, why is Theresa May acting now? For a start, the circumstances could not be more propitious for her: Labour is weak and fatally divided under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and, in some polls, the Tories have a 21-point lead. Her personal ratings are also excellent: the public seems to like her low-key seriousness of intent and unflashy style, and will now have the chance to endorse her and her Brexit strategy in a national ballot. She has the ardent support of the Brexit press and one of her aides told me that the Conservative Party was as “united as I’ve ever known it”.
May craves the certainty of a resounding majority in the Commons – at present, she has a working majority of only 17. She wants to send a clear message to the EU27 as she prepares for the long and arduous Brexit negotiations.
Then there is the small matter of the 2015 manifesto. May aspires to be a prime minister as transformative as Margaret Thatcher or Clement Attlee. For her, Brexit was not only a vote to leave the EU, it was an opportunity to create a new political economy, hence the positioning on industrial strategy, on institutional and labour-market reform, and on creating what she calls a “Great Meritocracy”.
Hard though it is for many on the left to accept this, May sincerely believes in social reform, as she explained to me at length when I interviewed her at Downing Street in February, and she wants to make a clean break from the Blairite-Cameroon political and economic consensus. Brexit, she said in her Conservative party conference speech in October, is “a turning point for our country. A once-in-a-generation chance to change the direction of our nation for good. To step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be.”
More than any other British politician, with the possible exception of Labour’s Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman, May (together with her closest aides) has thought deeply about the reasons for the post-liberal turn in our politics.
“There has been a breakdown in trust,” she told me. “Wages have been stagnant but there are other aspects to it, too. There’s been a breakdown in trust in institutions that have always formed the core of our society. There’s a sense that business somehow has been playing by a different set of rules, which is unfair.”
The public response to the Budget in March, when Philip Hammond tried and failed to increase Class 4 National Insurance contributions for self-employed workers, showed how difficult it would be for her to make fundamental changes without her own mandate. Before being forced to make an abrupt U-turn, Hammond was accused of breaking the Tories’ general election pledge not to raise National Insurance contributions or income tax.
Similarly May wants to create new grammar schools, something to which the Cameron government was opposed. The reintroduction of academically selective state education will now be a manifesto commitment.
May knows that she is in Downing Street because of Brexit and that the final settlement will define her premiership and legacy. But she wants much more than to be remembered as the Brexit PM: she wants to transform the United Kingdom, and she can achieve this only if the kingdom remains united, which is no small matter when the SNP is so powerful and agitating for a second independence referendum.
Theresa May is nothing if not determined. She has a reputation for caution and deliberation, but since she became Prime Minister this vicar’s daughter has shown she likes to gamble as well. In this instance, in calling a surprise election, she knows the cards are stacked overwhelmingly in her favour.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble