Theresa May does not want to hold an early election. This is not because she is ‘frit’ or because she believes there is a strong chance she may lose such a contest. This is not a repeat of Gordon Brown’s disastrous decision to stick rather than to twist. It is because she believes that yet another vote would be bad for Britain and bad for her chances of delivering a ‘good Brexit’. Further uncertainty might spark even greater market turmoil and inward investment may be even harder to come by – not chances she wishes to take. But history makes its own gravity and it is a rare politician indeed who can defy the physical laws of the political universe; an election beckons whether May likes it or not.
The High Court decision that Parliament is sovereign over the triggering of Article 50 has created the potential for constitutional crisis. Of course, the reaction of the pro-Brexit press has been both disproportionate and, in some places, deeply ugly. But eurosceptics are right to see within the judgment a threat to the swift withdrawal from Europe that many desire. MPs will be offered the opportunity (presuming the Supreme Court upholds the decision on appeal) to play for time, to delay and to disrupt. Whether or not that is constitutionally correct (and it does seem difficult to imagine how it could possibly be right for the Executive to take such action without Parliamentary consent) it creates an enormous difficulty for the Prime Minister. Theresa May’s majority is small, she has no direct personal mandate from party or country and neither chamber has a plurality in favour of her approach to Brexit. Perhaps had there been a longer and more fiercely fought battle for the premiership Mrs. May would have more room for manoeuvre. But her coronation makes it difficult to argue that all of the options have been considered and that all alternatives have been found wanting. In other words she now lacks both the legitimacy and the numbers to force her will.
There are those who believe this a jolly good thing. After all, Mrs. May was not elected PM and the British public have not voted for any specific route out of the EU. All very well. But those cheering this decision should think on its implications for democracy. Yes, the Mail and the Telegraph look histrionic this morning. But if no-one has the capacity to make Brexit happen, after 17 million people voted for it, the democratic deficit will begin to feel very real and pinch very hard. That is a more dangerous thing than a few days daftness on the front pages. Emotions are running high, witness Stephen Phillips’ decision to resign in protest against almost everyone.
All of which is why the steady, far off drumbeat of a looming election grows ever louder. Another vote, with clear lines of difference and clarity of approach may be the release that our politics needs. May could then go back to Parliament with a mandate and a plan, with the legitimacy that she needs if she is to bend her colleagues to her will. Whilst there is little danger of Parliament openly voting to permanently block Article 50, they could well use their current powers and the current confusion to delay almost indefinitely. That would be infinitely harder to get away with had a whole election just been fought on this very question.
There are barriers to an election – May’s own promises, the Fixed Term Parliament Act (in its own right a piece of grotesque constitutional vandalism), the state of the markets. But all are surmountable because the political gravity simply is not resistible, or at least not for long. What is more, the Parliamentary Labour Party – as desperate for a moment of internal catharsis as Theresa May is for a mandate – can be broadly counted on to agree to an election. So be ready for the roar of democracy’s guns and cannons, yet another vote this way comes.