After promising repeatedly there would be no early election Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap poll for June 8, ostensibly to secure an electoral endorsement for the UK’s Brexit negotiating position. May argues she needs the clear backing of British voters to stop other parties frustrating the Government’s negotiations. This, of course, is somewhat spurious given that her recent triggering of Article 50 enjoyed overwhelming support in the Parliament including from the Labour Opposition. So, what are the real reasons?
Over Easter several opinion polls revealed the Tories have a stunning 20 to 21-point lead over Labour. May’s chief campaign strategist, Australia’s Lynton Crosby is reported to have told May there could be no better climate in which to call an election. After all Labour was divided, unpopular, and poorly led by Jeremy Corbyn. The anti-immigration, anti- EU party UKIP was also in trouble having chosen an accident-prone Paul Nuttall to replace populist Nigel Farage.
Despite their ascendancy in the polls the Tories have their own problems. Up to 30 Conservative MPs are currently under investigation over their 2015 electoral expenses, a nagging internal worry and distraction for the government. May’s inner circle have also argued she needs a “mandate in her own right” to be able to stand up to those on the right wing of her party who have been undermining her on a range of policy fronts. These Tory “troglodytes” have been pushing May towards a “hard Brexit” she believes would not be good for Britain.
Elected leader following David Cameron’s post referendum resignation Theresa May was persuaded that she could only achieve both party and policy discipline if she won a strong endorsement from the British people for her leadership. Current opinion polls point to her securing a massive majority, perhaps up to 100 seats. May cannot, at this stage, publicly talk about the need for a softer Brexit but if her leadership is cemented and her party strengthened by a significant majority, she will be in a better position at home and abroad, as well as within her own party, to get the best deal she can.
There are other factors that most commentators have missed. If the government had gone on to serve its full term until 2020, the most difficult phase of the Brexit negotiations would have occurred in the immediate lead up to the election. May was convinced of the political peril of either being seen to be weak or being forced to make unpalatable decisions when she was most electorally vulnerable.
The benefits of Brexit have been massively oversold and wise heads within the government know that grim and embarrassing news lies ahead in the negotiations, with the EU considered to have the upper hand. An early election buys Theresa May time and creates the space in which to recover from an unpalatable Brexit outcome. A big election win now would also put the government into a stronger position later in dealing with the pro EU Scottish Nationalists who have been pressing for a second independence referendum.
Meanwhile the hapless Corbyn has painted himself into a corner. He has said many times that Labour would welcome an election at “any time” so that British voters could have a real choice on policies such as NHS funding. By doing so he is committing political suicide and has endorsed- and now voted in Parliament in support of – an election that will end his leadership and see more Labour seats lost. Labour also does not want to be torn in different directions over Brexit by being seen to resist the will of the people as expressed in the referendum or stall an election that is designed to deal more effectively with its implementation. In Labour’s working class regional areas in the Midlands and north of England there was strong voter support for leaving the EU. However, in London, also a Labour stronghold, there was 70% backing for remaining within the EU, so Labour must walk a tightrope on Brexit.
Disastrously, Corbyn lacks the support of 80% of his own MPs yet remains leader because of changes to the Party voting system that gave the biggest say in choosing a leader to a combined vote of unions and party members rather than Labour MPs. May’s snap election prevents frantic efforts by Labour moderates to replace Corbyn in time to rebuild before the next election. The June 8 poll has successfully locked Corbyn into the leadership at a time when Labour is at its lowest ebb, even in historical terms.
Moderates in the Labour Party have been trying to get a major union to switch from Corbyn and back someone electable. To this end we have recently seen a bitter leadership contest within “Unite”, the biggest union which is currently backing Corbyn. Labour’s problem is that its moderates have not yet found a standard bearer to put up and unite around. Labour realists know they will “need” to be “nuked” electorally in order to rebuild later. This will probably mean they will be forced to languish in Opposition for another two terms.
Meanwhile the pro-EU Lib Dems, almost wiped out electorally two years ago, could make somewhat of a comeback in the south of England where anti-Brexit sentiments run high. Without a Labour alternative, they may pick up a few seats.
The election on June 8 will not be all plain sailing for Theresa May, given her previous adamant opposition to a snap poll. There is public cynicism and clear voter fatigue following a general election, a referendum and now a third nationwide vote, all held within two years. But the auguries could not be better for May to smash a divided Labour and put Tory troglodytes back in their cave.
The Hon Mike Rann AC is the CEO of Rann Strategy Group based in the UK and Italy, a Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College London and a Distinguished Alumni of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is a former Australian High Commissioner to the UK and later Ambassador to Italy. He was Premier of South Australia from 2002 to 2011.