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18 April 2017

Four thoughts on Theresa May’s general election decision

The Prime Minister's shock decision to seek an early election has many consequences. 

By Stephen Bush

So much for the cautious Theresa May.  The myth that the new Prime Minister is a cautious or careful operator has been decisively demolished by her decision to seek an early election. Although the polls are with her and the pattern from local and parliamentary by-elections suggests that she will be rewarded with a big majority, there is potential for disaster. People tend to resent “snap” elections and turnout may drop. As the Remain coalition tends to vote more frequently than any other, a low poll – say 60 per cent – could advantage the Liberal Democrats. (That the result is seen as a foregone conclusion by most increases that risk.)

There is also the prospect for someone to “do a Nick Clegg” in the televised debates. It could be Jeremy Corbyn, who is a better performer in the TV debate format than he is in the chamber. But it could, equally, be Clegg’s successor: Tim Farron.

The investigation into election expenses is dead in the water

One important effect of the election is that if any results of the 2015 contest are declared void, that won’t matter, as those results will have been overturned in any case. Some will wonder if May’s abrupt U-Turn, after Downing Street had spent the best part of a year briefing against the idea, was motivated by the chance that the Crown Prosecution Service would declare the results void.

(In practice, verdicts incriminating individual MPs could still force them to stand down, but as you have to prove deliberate intent on the part of the candidate, rather than the party, this is highly unlikely.

So are boundary changes

The shrinking of the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 seats will not take place before this election. If the current polls are recreated at a general election, the biggest losers from the change will be Tory MPs, further reducing the chances that the Commons will ever be shrunk down to 600.

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Theresa May got tired of her cage

May attacked Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP for getting in her way on Brexit. This isn’t true; there is a large majority for exit in the Commons. Her frustrations have been in the domestic sphere, and her biggest defeats have come from her own party. Her other headache is the manifesto she inherited from David Cameron, a document intended to be negotiated away with the Liberal Democrats that cannot be implemented in the real world. Now she will be free from the demands of her backbenchers and will no longer face a Lords veto when she deviates from the Cameron agenda.

Nicola Sturgeon will be pleased

Theresa May’s message to Scotland was that Downing Street would prevent them holding a referendum on independence as the process of negotiating Brexit had to come first. Now, she’s decided that negotiating Brexit comes second – and getting a bigger parliamentary majority comes third. You don’t have to be an astute politician to work that into an effective wedge message for the Scottish National Party. 

Read more: How Theresa May can call an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act