Here's why May's election won't pan out according to plan...
PUBLISHED: 06:53 22 April 2017 | UPDATED: 06:53 22 April 2017
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... they never do, says The New European's election editor
At least Theresa May deserves a round of applause for pulling off a real surprise. Even her cabinet did not know. Those of us who saw her as a risk-averse, Anglo-Catholic vicar’s daughter, raised in the gentler, Ovaltine conservatism of small town Oxfordshire, never spotted the gambler’s streak either. But May’s flip flop in favour of a snap June 8 general election is pure Las Vegas. As immediately became apparent (“Crush the Saboteurs”) it will inject some of Nevada’s brash stridency into British politics, something a recuperating country could well do without.
But will the gamble work? In the short term, barring the unexpected or war with North Korea, the instant Fleet St-to-Westminster consensus is correct: “of course, almost certainly, yes.” The 20% Tory lead in the aggregated polls suggests May will increase her slender Commons majority, mostly at the expense of Team Corbyn, sitting there complacently in the spring sunshine like a ageing battleship without air cover.
Why did Jeremy immediately acquiesce in May’s decision when overriding the coalition’s Fixed Term Parliament Act requires a two-thirds Commons majority and so gives him a veto? Perhaps he believes that the modest clutch of policy proposals Labour has recently set out on free school meals and a £10 minimum wage will confound his critics? Perhaps he has a private death wish. Perhaps he did it because he is a closet Brexiteer. Did he not want to trigger Article 50 on June 24? He did. Don’t ask.
But not even the destruction of Corbyn’s painful interlude as Labour leader is guaranteed by this decision. If the Tories can double down on an historic error, as May is now doing, why should less worldly Labour activists be any wiser? Especially if the perceived purpose of the election is the destruction of the Labour Party, an ambition already declared by very un-conservative, Prussian bullies at the Mail and Telegraph? Little do those Hard Brexit Prussians realise that by 2019 May’s version of the “enemies of the people” – those “saboteurs” she must crush (the borrowed tabloid phrases were coined by Lenin) – will actually be them.
All that is for the post-June 8 future when Marine Le Pen might just be president of France, outdoing the Ovaltine’s May in every utterance, and Donald Trump may have triumphed over Boy Kim, but probably not. Between now and then come seven weeks of an election campaign which only zealots on both sides want. Brenda from Bristol achieved instant YouTube fame when she spoke for Britain with her: ”You’re joking. Not another one? Oh for God’s sake, I can’t, honestly, I can’t stand this.”
What’s more, May’s “Me” election will be run by parties which are only half-prepared and no more recovered than Brenda from Bristol from the bruising, divisive battles of 2015 and 2016 – 2014 too if we count Scotland’s bitter independence referendum. Northern Ireland? British politicians tend to forget it when the bombs stop, but yet again it is wrong-footed in the middle of a political crisis purely its own. No one knows where May’s gamble will leave the Six Counties. Another step closer to the Republic’s 26 perhaps?
The Celtic nations apart, instant consensus points to Labour and UKIP losses – the post-Farage party of Paul Nuttall but no longer Douglas Carswell is also in disarray – both failures to May’s potential advantage in the north and Midlands where Labour-to-UKIP defectors may wander her way. But pollsters also detect a Lib Dem recovery from the unfair beating (57 seats down to eight – now nine, after a by-election success) which voters gave them for the (mostly) restraining role in the Cameron coalition and Nick Clegg’s personal betrayal over student fees.
In my native Cornwall – where I am typing now – Lord Ashcroft’s polling and Lynton “Dog Whistle” Crosby’s advice is telling May she may lose all six seats back to Tim Farron’s troops. The party has perkily recovered from its 2015 disaster and its press operation is certainly better than Labour’s. Thanks to Labour’s retreat it has found a new mission as the unequivocal Remain party.
Ha, ha. West Country seats regained would be a sweet revenge for all those Cameron-targeted Lib Dem MPs undermined with the help of that Tory battle bus, loaded with Bright Young Things called Nick and Jemima, thrilled to be visiting the sticks but illicitly charging their expenses to party HQ, not to the local candidate.
Now that the stealth bus has been helping police with their inquiries, a snap election may resolve the risk of legally-imposed by-elections in Tory marginals. That may have been a factor in May’s change of heart, but surely only a small one. Its advantage may be offset by the failure (yet again) to run the election on new boundaries, changes which correct demographics that have favoured inner city Labour.
Apart from the obvious – hammer Labour before it gets round to ditching Corbyn or he deselects moderate MPs – the real motives behind May’s U-turn on her many explicit denials of a snap election, are only gradually emerging. The PM’s declared reasons from the podium in Downing St did not make much sense at the first hearing and do not now. Yes, she restored stability to the post-referendum disarray and yes, the economy has so far done better than George Osborne foolishly predicted. But both points remain valid without an unwanted election.
Yes, she does not have a personal mandate, but as a Tory she knows the mandate doctrine is un-British, as Gordon Brown, John Major and Jim Callaghan (plus many more “unelected” PMs) can confirm. The referendum is her mandate, though she has chosen to interpret her brief in ways likely to hurt the economy. So no, it is not true that her opponents “believe that because our majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course.” May has appeased her Brexit wing enough – on grammar schools and much else – to win their acquiescence for now. Despite vocal reservations, Parliament’s Remain majority has fallen in behind her strategic plan, “unelected peers” included.
Given May’s reputation for unflashy plain-dealing, the Downing St statement was striking for two things. One was her Thatcher-ish use of “I” and “me” (at least it’s not yet “we” when she means “I”) for a decision her inner circle forced on her and she bounced on the cabinet, as well as on the Queen. HMQ did not – if I remember correctly – even get the formal namecheck that “going to the Palace to ask the Queen for a dissolution” requires, if only for old time’s sake. Such details can be revealing. She keeps things close to her chest. Brexit means Brexit and Me means Me.
The second eyebrow raising moment was “the country is coming together, but Westminster is not.” As commentators, admittedly in Westminster themselves, were quick to point out, that is a lie, close to the opposite of the truth. For better or worse, most MPs and even peers have acquiesced in her “Brexit means Brexit” interpretation of June 23’s narrow verdict.
It is legitimate that the Lib Dems, SNP and other minority parties like the Greens should represent the 48% in deciding to oppose her. But her will has prevailed in parliament as in cabinet. The unity in the country of which she spoke is not so apparent. In a Cornish pub this week a farming pal who says I persuaded him to vote Remain tells me “some Leave voters here are regretting it”. Around the table nostrils flared, as they quickly do in such conversations 10 months on.
Where May’s advisers are undoubtedly right in their timing is in their awareness that, with or without Brexit, the economy is due for a downturn, for which Brexit will be blamed. That may be unfair, but – as Trump is also finding – if you take the credit for good economic data when you know it’s nothing to do with you, you can expect to catch the blame for the downturn, especially if it happens on your watch.
It will provide an unhelpful background to the Brexit talks in Brussels and May cannot rely on the Mail’s Paul Dacre, currently drooling over her, to stand by his woman when the going gets tough. Tough choices are not what the Mail is for. It has become a Tea Party newspaper, crushing those saboteurs.
May’s praetorian team – Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill take a bow – have been instrumental in persuading her to take the plunge. Unlike Gordon Brown, who let “mandate election” speculation run riot 10 years ago, but bottled holding one, they have done the opposite. Take another bow. They also deserve credit for scotching the persistent belief in some European capitals that, as with other EU referendums which came up with the “wrong” answer, the Brits will find a way to change their mind. The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, now diplomatic editor, quoted a string of such utterances from the EU 27.
Odd that the likes of Guy Verhofstadt shares the same illusion as the Mail’s Mr Dacre, albeit from opposite ends of the telescope: there’s a plot to “thwart the will of the British people” (37% of the total electorate) or a plot to implement their real will (the 63% who didn’t vote for Brexit).
Both versions are nonsense, of course. Brexit will happen and most of those MPs, peers and officials required to implement Nigel Farage’s destiny (Nigel himself was last seen fishing in the Adriatic after surfing in California) will do their best in the time available.
But details of negotiation and lines of compromise are everything in a situation like this. Here is where May’s real purpose may lie, as she failed to say on the Downing St podium, but came close to conceding to the BBC’s Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today. One is the European point. If she wins the Merkels, Barniers and Verhofstadts will have to accept that there is no going back on Brexit, she has the explicit mandate which a more competent opposition might have denied her. That may make the eventual terms tougher, but does provide clarity, always helpful.
More important, by staging her election in 2017, May avoids having to stage another one until June 2022. She will then be 65, the same age as Churchill when Britain last left Europe in a hurry via Dunkirk.
But it means that she will have acquired more room for manoeuvre during and immediately after the Brexit timetable’s core negotiations. That means the two years (2017-19) specified by Article 50 and the transition period for trade and other arrangements to continue while that “deep and special partnership” with May’s declared EU friends and partners is hammered into permanent shape. Touch wood. Badly handled, silly quarrels over legacy payments for example, and the whole thing could derail.
Either way, May has a more comfortable parliamentary cushion on which to sit as she and her team try to sell compromises to MPs and voters who may or may not be in a mood for compromise. Given the speed of President Trump’s reinvention, from “America First” isolationist to the world’s nuclear policeman, we may all be on dry bread and lard by then, too hungry to care. But optimism is always the best medicine, just as extra wriggle room is good for negotiators to have.
So stuffing Jeremy Corbyn may appeal to Tory activists and the bully boy end of Fleet Street, but that may just be the cover story. Keeping May’s activists and her bullies under control if practical realities, political and economic, require her to do, so is a much worthier goal, however unappealing it now seems to ardent Remainers. All of which requires luck to stay on May’s side, as it has largely done so far.
If we fatalistically assume she will win the election – even many Labour voters rightly see her as a safer bet than you-know-who – she will also need to ensure that as many unselected candidates as possible are loyal to Ovaltine Tory pragmatism, not zealots or naives. George Osborne’s decision to do the country one last half-baked disservice by stepping down as an MP may please May’s inner circle. But he was never going to be a real threat and might have helped steady the Brexit ship in 2020, if pirates climb aboard with Long John Boris or Cut-Throat Jake Mogg at their head. Now he’s just a fellow-hack. A possible comeback? Who does he think he’s kidding?
The unpredictability of it all serves to remind us, in a year when Tea Party Republicans have rejected President Trump’s plans to wreck Obamacare as not wrecking enough, and President Erdogan has set modern Turkey on a Putinesque course, that nothing can be guaranteed. Not even the May landslide which the Tory press excitedly predicted on Wednesday morning. Stuff happens, just like the man said. Jeremy Corbyn may play a campaign blinder, earnest Nicola Sturgeon may be caught in a Maryhill love nest with a toy boy (that might boost her ratings) or Jean-Claude Juncker may say: “We got it wrong.”
Probably none of those things will happen. But landslides create dangerous dynamics of their own – excess expectation in voters, hubris in leaders – as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair learned to their eventual cost. Wise voters should do their tactical best to deny May that landslide: “It’s in your best interests, dear.” They will be joined on June 8 by bored voters and by angry voters like Brenda from Bristol who may stay at home to show how cross they are at being troubled again by politicians they thought were getting on with the day job. And who knows what impact a Le Pen victory on May 7 might have here?
Between the parties, the voters and mere events, May’s Me election won’t pan out according to plan, they rarely do. This week she’s getting the credit and later she may get the blame.
Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian