We have written a fair bit, in these notes, about the idea of ‘political gravity’. Of course individuals, leaders, can make the weather now and again. They are not irrelevant. But they are also not all-powerful – even when, as was the case for David Cameron and remains the case for Theresa May, they are lucky in their opponents. Eventually the tug and pull of natural political forces reassert themselves over even the most talented or headstrong leader. So it was that David Cameron’s tightrope act on an EU referendum undid him. So it is that, despite her protestations otherwise, Theresa May has today announced that she will – after all – go to the polls ahead of schedule. The alternatives to obeying the laws of political gravity, once they begin to truly drag at you, are never pleasant. Gordon Brown refused to fall into line with its demands and ended up looking like King Canute, barking at the tide to no avail.
Why has May chosen this moment to reverse herself? Well there are the medium-term temptations that come with an opposition leader who routinely polls below ‘don’t know’ when folk are asked their preference for Prime Minister. Then there are her own restless backbenchers and slim majority – being held hostage by a gang of twenty or so hardliners is never fun, when you know that the public would willingly drown them out with a raft of new, young and loyalist MPs it is hard to resist the thought that an election might be just the ticket. But there are also serious matters of state at stake here. In recent weeks, with Article 50 triggered and negotiations now underway May and her advisers have begun to grasp that the incredible complexity of this process risks sinking her Government unless she can regain and retain momentum. An election victory will cement legitimacy for May’s approach to Brexit and make it harder for its opponents to claim that the public lacked understanding of what their vote last June really meant. All of these are factors in today’s announcement. However, the real moment at which the gravity began to assert an undeniable force was not Brexit related at all. Nor was it, particularly, about the slenderness of Mrs. May’s majority. Instead, it came in Phillip Hammond’s first budget as Chancellor.
Hammond’s policy of harmonising NIC rates between the self-employed and employees made a lot of logical sense. What’s more, it spoke somewhat to Theresa May’s animating themes of fairness and equal treatment and it provided the Government with a spot of breathing space at a time of great fiscal pressure. But a reversal was forced within days – not because the policy was a bad one (which is debatable) but because it was explicitly ruled out by the manifesto on which Hammond, May and their colleagues had been elected under David Cameron. Theresa May was not especially wedded to Hammond’s harmonisation as a matter of principle, but this episode taught her a cruel and important lesson. She may be Prime Minister, she may command unusually high personal support in the country and face unprecedentedly incompetent opposition but she is still governing on her predecessor’s mandate. It was at that moment that an election became likelier than not – suddenly she understood that she could not legitimately deliver on her promises around corporate governance, industrial strategy, welfare and tax while hemmed in by a manifesto and set of promises that were not hers but by which she was bound.
Of course, thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act it is not within Theresa May’s power to merely call an election – she must ask Parliament first. She has two routes to achieving this. First, she can seek to repeal the act, which can be done with a simple majority and which (given Labour’s stated readiness to support an early election) should be manageable. Should that fail, May will need to create a vote of no confidence in her own Government – unusual, yes, but not impossible.
What does this mean for the parties? Well, for the Conservatives there will now be a scramble to find suitable candidates for many dozens of seats up and down the country which were once considered unwinnable but now look highly contestable. The party has plenty of money and a reasonably well-oiled election fighting machine – Nick Timothy, who is the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff has recent experience running on-the-ground campaigns and whilst the Prime Minister has cleared out many of her predecessor’s policy staff, campaigners have tended to survive the cull. What the Conservative Party lacks, though, is ground troops to do the donkey work of a campaign. In Copeland that deficiency was answered by importing activists and staffers from all over the country. This is not a trick that can be repeated in the context of a General Election.
Labour enters this campaign in the worst possible shape. Jeremy Corbyn loses out in personal popularity to Theresa May with every polling demographic on whom it is possible to report. It may be that there are niche segments of the public with whom he is overwhelmingly popular – sociology lecturers living in N1, for example – but unfortunately the data is not available. Across the usual metrics of political cut-through (trusted on the economy, trusted on defence, etc) he and his party are consistently behind the Tories. The massive membership boost that Corbyn undeniably achieved for Labour is now waning, with tens of thousands of new members allowing their membership to lapse, and the Labour Party has lost the active support of many thousands of experienced and dedicated activists too. Several MPs have already thrown in the towel and today Tom Blenkinsop, a young and talented Labour moderate who might once have seen a bright future for himself in Parliament, has announced he will not be contesting May’s June election. You should expect further such decisions in the coming days and weeks. Politically, Labour have proven unable to capitalise on Brexit. Their Remain-supporting middle class electorate are being tempted by the more clear-cut opposition of the Lib Dems. Their pro-Brexit working class voters don’t fully trust Labour’s promise to respect the outcome of the referendum. They are between a rock and a hard place on the most significant political question of the day and they can expect to be punished for it. On current polling Labour looks like it might fall below 150 seats for the first time since 1931 – a truly devastating result.
The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, will be feeling optimistic today. They have a clear position on Brexit – which served them well in the Richmond by-election – and they hope that this will help them to recover seats in Remain constituencies with Tory MPs. While May believes she will beat Labour back in their old heartlands in the North, the Lib Dems think they will steal seats from Labour in the metropolises whilst picking up votes from the Tories in areas like the South West. The yellow peril is back and could be set for one of the most remarkable and swift political come-backs in recent history. Meanwhile, burdened with a pretty useless leader, robbed of their main political purpose and pretty much broke – due to the withdrawal of Arron Banks’ financial support – UKIP look set for irrelevance.
In Scotland, the announcement presents Nicola Sturgeon with an unwelcome complication in her pursuit of an Indyref rerun. Understandably – given her pronouncements in recent months – this issue will dominate the election campaign north of the border. Poll after poll shows that the majority of Scots oppose a second vote and in order for Sturgeon to claim victory she would need to beat her party’s 2015 showing of 56 seats, which feels very unlikely. Expect both the Tories and Labour to do better in Scotland this time around.
The old rules of politics have taken a battering over the last year, no doubt about it. But in calling an election May has shown that she understands that leaders ignore the natural laws of political gravity at their own peril. She is asking the British people for a mandate because, in the end, she needs one. On current form, it is difficult to imagine her being denied her request.