“There should be no general election until 2020,” Theresa May announced as she launched her bid for the Conservative Party leadership last June. She was adamant that there should be no election until the next one was due in four years under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
In September, the prime minister again declared on the BBC: “I’m not going to be calling a snap election”. As the New Statesman noted, May repeated the mantra that not having an early election would guarantee ‘stability’ right up until the message changed to only an early election could ensure this stability. Some commentators even believed her, despite her also once insisting that Britain leaving the EU was a terrible idea for many reasons but warming to the idea soon after the referendum. So on 18 April she made the surprise announcement that she wanted a snap election after all, on 8 June.
An emphatic Tory win was touted as supposedly giving the prime minister a stronger hand in Brexit negotiations with the EU. But it was an election that no party except the Tories wanted – even if the electorate seemed to accept May’s reasoning. But whatever she might have said, May was always likely to tempted into an unseemly rush to the ballot box by the tantalising sight of a Labour movement at war with itself under the divisive figure of Jeremy Corbyn, the perennial backbencher and stalwart of the 1980s most unloved causes who was unexpectedly elevated to party leader. It was a once-in-a-generation chance to exploit the weakness of an opposition trailing in every region of England except London and with only one MP out of 59 in Scotland (once a Labour stronghold, where the Tories could now win eight seats, the Economist suggested). It is behind by 18-20 percentage points overall with Corbyn viewed unfavourably by most of the country and unable to command the loyalties of 80% of his parliamentary party.
Also auguring well for May were the huge Conservative gains in local elections on 4 May, when they won control of 11 councils, increased the number of councillors by 558 and finally saw off the threat of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), according to the Daily Telegraph. After losing every seat in the local elections, the anti-EU Ukip is expected to lose further ground in the election as the Tories eat the populist upstart’s lunch and the march towards Brexit makes it ever more irrelevant. To the New York Times, though, the fringe party ‘has always been a shambles’.
A party divided
May is a Tory leader who became prime minister because she was the last person standing after her fratricidal rivals knifed each other out of contention. But now she could win a commanding majority – something only Margaret Thatcher and Harold Macmillan achieved for the party since 1945. Crucially, the Brexit referendum has fractured and eroded Labour’s bedrock working-class vote. As the New York Times put it, ‘a referendum intended to prevent a split in the Conservative Party has thus caused one in the Labour Party instead.’
May’s advisers smelt blood and made the election all about the contrast between her and Corbyn. The Tory campaign bus summed up the strategy: with her name writ large and the party only mentioned in small letters on the door. ‘It may say Labour on the ballot but it’s Corbyn that gets the vote,’ became a familiar line in her stump speeches.
The Conservatives, said the Guardian, were out to capture some of the most historic Labour seats in England, with the Tory rank and file ordered to seize the opportunity to ‘destroy Labour’, Reuters reported. As the campaign progressed, her profile grew and her ministers were increasingly relegated to supporting roles. In keeping with the presidential tone of the electioneering, May was, as the Economist put it, ‘risking few encounters with ordinary voters’. A post on Facebook summed up the view from her eyrie: ‘If I lose just six seats I will lose this election,’ she began, ignoring the fact that the seats do not belong to prime ministers.
In the 1990s, the Conservative Prime Minister John Major had a bigger majority than May but still had to fight running battles with his backbenchers (and three cabinet ministers he called ‘the bastards’). The chance to secure a majority as overwhelming as Thatcher’s tipped May’s hand. If she had not won the backing of two-thirds of MPs, she would have had to call a vote of no confidence on her own premiership. In the event she won easily, by 522 to 13 votes.
The Tories could win a 100-seat majority, the Telegraph predicted, while Sky estimated a majority of 140. Even the much-debated ‘progressive alliance’ of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens would not stop May getting a strong majority, the Guardian reported. Co-operating by not putting up candidates against each other would take a 10% swing from Tories to secure a majority of just eight seats for the hypothetical alliance.
2020 and Brexit
Somewhere in the government’s calculations was the realisation that it might well be humiliated in 2020 if it avoided going to polls until then. The UK would be immersed in what one MP called the ‘nightmare chaos of Brexit’, with unpredictable consequences: out of the European Union, with myriad trade deals still to negotiate, and half of the population not yet likely to be reconciled to withdrawal. Writing in the Guardian, Matthew d’Ancona warned that an election triumph for May might paradoxically lead to those hardliners prepared to leave the EU with no deal in place might find themselves isolated and neutralised by an emboldened prime minister who no longer has to pay too much attention to the Brexiteers.
If Labour loses, as seems a foregone conclusion to the bookmakers (one of which decided it was a 100-1 odds-on certainty, though the gap has narrowed since then), then it will not be because of its manifesto. Although the Conservative-supporting press, which accounts for most of Fleet Street, chorused about how it was a throwback to the 1970s, May paid Labour the ultimate compliment of stealing several proposals, such as a cap on energy prices and building council houses, to go with her more high-profile proposals, such as re-legalising fox-hunting and creating more grammar schools (which were truly reactionary policies, the left argued). Another Tory idea, on funding social care by making elderly people pay for care in their own home, was immediately branded a ‘dementia tax’ by many commentators. Days after it was announced, and ministers had insisted they would not be reconsidering it, May abruptly announced a U-turn. It followed a similar tyre-screeching manoeuvre when Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer, was forced to drop plans to raise national insurance for the self-employed less than a week after announcing it in the budget.
Other Labour ideas that have wider support, the Independent reported, are banning zero-hours contracts, upping income tax for high earners to pay for the National Health Service, raising the minimum wage for the low paid, renationalising railways as franchises expire, and taking the postal service back into state ownership. But while many Labour voters strongly back the party’s proposals, Corbyn remains deeply unpopular. On the day the leader officially launched the party’s manifesto, his biggest union backer – Unite’s Len McCluskey – told Politico that Labour would have had a ‘successful campaign’ if it held on to just 200 of the House of Commons’ 650 seats – compared with 229 in the last parliament. He said it would be ‘extraordinary’ if Labour won: ‘I’m not optimistic, but we’ll wait and see.’
For the Economist, it was a question of which huge election defeat would 2017 most resemble: ‘Will it be 1983, when Labour won just 209 seats under Michael Foot? Could it look more like 1935, when it secured 154?’
However, as the campaign entered its final fortnight, opinion polls suggested it might not be as one-sided as most observers had assumed, with Labour cutting May’s lead by half, gaining 5% to reach 34%, with the Tories down by as much to 43%. As Labour’s policies gain traction with wavering voters, could there be an upset as surprising as last year’s?
Oren Gruenbaum is the Editor of Commonwealth Update, published in the Round Table Journal.