In August 2007, as Gordon Brown deliberated whether to call an early general election, Theresa May demanded that he do so. “He has no democratic mandate,” the then shadow Commons leader declared.
But when May was similarly anointed as Prime Minister in July 2016, she had a different view. Having stated at her campaign launch, “There should be no general election until 2020,” May insisted, as did her aides, that she would keep her word. Voters were accustomed to politicians saying one thing and doing another. May, however, would be different. After the Scottish independence referendum, the tumultuous 2015 general election and the EU referendum, she sincerely believed that a period of stability was required. The Prime Minister’s steadfastness even as the Conservatives’ poll lead increased was cited as proof of her aversion to “political game-playing”.
By announcing her intention to hold a general election on 8 June, May has shown how well she can play the game. Even more than Nicola Sturgeon’s recent statement on a second Scottish referendum, the Prime Minister’s announcement caught Westminster off-guard. May, who told no one (including her husband) when she learned that Andrea Leadsom had withdrawn from the Conservative leadership contest, is a politician who can keep a secret.
May’s Downing Street statement sought to pre-empt charges of hypocrisy by accusing Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats of “political game-playing” over Brexit. It was a decision taken “in the national interest”, not a partisan ploy.
Downing Street aides cite three reasons as central to the Prime Minister’s change of heart (which followed her recent walking holiday in Wales): the chance for a re-elected Conservative government which would strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, the threat by Labour to vote against the withdrawal deal, and “the window of opportunity” open as the EU determines its negotiating timetable. Few expect significant talks to begin until after the second round of the French presidential election in May and the German election in September.
But the numbers were also crucial to May’s judgement. The weekend before her announcement, two polls gave the Conservatives a 21-point lead over Labour – the party’s largest in government since 1983. Should the Tories repeat this performance at the ballot box, they would win a majority of roughly 150 seats.
Labour MPs have long feared that their party will perform still worse than the polls suggest. Surveys have historically overstated support for the opposition, and Jeremy Corbyn has yet to be placed before the electorate. The Conservatives have a meticulously prepared attack dossier charting the Labour leader’s and John McDonnell’s past support for the IRA. Having overwhelmingly voted against Corbyn’s leadership last summer, Labour MPs will struggle to make a credible case for him to be prime minister. Indeed, even Corbyn struggles to do so. Asked by the BBC whether he was “the next prime minister”, he flatly replied: “If we win this election, yes.”
May has seized what will likely be her best chance to win a super-majority. Corbyn is the most unpopular opposition leader in polling history (but may not have fought 2020). The economy has outperformed post-referendum expectations (but a squeeze on living standards is on the way). And Ukip, which finished third in 2015 in votes, has morphed from a political party into a political fight club.
There are potential downsides to May’s choice. As I recently revealed, private polling for the Conservatives by the strategist Lynton Crosby (who will manage the party’s campaign, as he did in 2015) showed that the Tories would lose most of the 27 seats they gained from the Liberal Democrats two years ago. MPs from Devon and Cornwall pleaded with May not to go to the country. But however large their losses to the Lib Dems (who recruited 4,000 new members in a few hours after May’s election announcement), the Tories are confident that their gains from Labour will compensate.
Conservative MPs identify other opportunities. In Scotland, the Tories are polling 14 points ahead of Labour (compared to 9 points behind in 2015) and could make gains from the SNP. Should May be returned as Prime Minister, no longer will Nicola Sturgeon be able to gibe that she has no mandate to block a second referendum in 2019.
Election victory would also strengthen May’s hand against the most formidable opposition she faces: her MPs. The Tories’ working majority of 17 seats (the smallest of any single-party government since 1974) is vulnerable to future rebellions by Remainers and Leavers alike. The former are aggrieved by May’s vow to withdraw the UK from the single market and the customs union; the latter by her support for a transitional deal potentially involving continued free movement and European jurisdiction.
Since becoming Prime Minister, May has struggled to reconcile her distinctive vision with the 2015 manifesto that she inherited from David Cameron. The Conservatives’ reckless “tax lock” pledge forced the abandonment of the National Insurance increase. Expensive commitments such as the “triple lock” on state pensions endure. Grammar schools, a manifesto breach, would likely be rejected by MPs. May, who has long treated Brexit as a proxy mandate, now has a chance to win a genuine one.
Should the Prime Minister’s judgement be wrong, she will become the shortest-serving occupant of No 10 since Bonar Law in 1923. More likely, it will be vindicated. The electorate may resent being forced back to the polls, but few will vote on this basis. Labour’s collapse, Brexit, the Lib Dem resurgence – politics has been transformed since 2015. But parliament has not.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble