And so it came to pass, the Tuesday after Easter weekend, that the British Prime Minister did announce her intention to call an early General Election.
What started out as a sudden announcement of a press conference outside Downing Street quickly descended into rampant speculation. Had Queen died? Is Theresa May resigning? Are we going to war with North Korea? Had Theresa May set off Trident? Is Jeremy Corbyn going to organise an Official Opposition? (Then again, maybe not. I did say it was all mere speculation.) And then, because Northern Ireland is that political thorn in the side of the British government these days (we still do not have an Executive, just so you know) there was some murmurings that perhaps the Prime Minister was about to deliver a statement on the political impasse here, and potentially announce the introduction of direct rule.
I thought the chat about the Prime Minister announcing a resignation on health grounds was unlikely. And, I also considered that despite some questionable decisions since last summer, Theresa May was unlikely to have accidently fired Trident. Firing metaphorical shots about Gibraltar is where it stops with this Prime Minister.
On the speculation about the suspension of Stormont, well, I did not think it to be entirely impossible. The British government is keen for resolution here; it has to present a united front of sorts during the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Moreover, no British government has ever enjoyed dealing with the political crises Northern Ireland throws up. However, I ruled this out because any announcement on Northern Ireland, whether to impose direct rule or call yet another snap election, would surely come from the Secretary of State. James Brokenshire has taken the lead on Northern Ireland since the Executive’s collapse over the RHI controversy in early January. Theresa May has taken a back seat, especially over the recent negotiations and their subsequent collapse and re-formation. James Brokenshire had said he would come to a decision after the Easter weekend, and the political parties do seem to be stuck in stalemate. But I doubted the Prime Minister would summon the UK-wide media to a sudden press conference just for Northern Ireland.
That left speculation over an early General Election. This seemed possible to me, with Labour polling in dire straits, with the Conservatives polling strongly in marked contrast. And after all, Theresa May needs a mandate, and urgently. She found herself anointed as Conservative Party leader and thus Prime Minister last summer; she was never elected to be Prime Minister. Attempting to oversee the most divisive operation in Brexit, she needs to say she has the support of the people – at least, the support of the majority of those who vote. Moreover, she does not wish to be simply the Prime Minister who heralded Brexit. As we have seen with her stance on education, particularly around grammar schools, there is a whole domestic policy agenda she wishes to pursue.
The scene is set. The Prime Minister settles down at her podium, ten minutes before she was expected. Truly, we all should have picked up the theme was ‘early’ from that alone.
And so she duly announced she had spoken with her Cabinet, and all had agreed an early election was the most suitable course. It shall be held on the 8th June, and essentially contested on Brexit.
In her statement, May said her government was trying to deliver on last year’s referendum result by making sure Britain regained control and struck new trade deals.
“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that,” she said, but claimed that other political parties had opposed her efforts.
“The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
Now, Theresa May has been quite clear in the past about wanting the next general election to be in 2020, so she stunned many in Westminster by announcing that it would actually be held this year. The Prime Minister claimed she had changed her mind “reluctantly”, although the spate of polls putting the Tories as much as 21 points ahead of Labour may have made it easier. You know, 21 points ahead means 21 points ahead. And all this, despite a recent policy blitz by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Evidently, the Prime Minister was tempted to capitalise on the poor ratings in an effort to boost her slim working majority in order to pass both Brexit and domestic legislation. (This, of course, will render her current reliance on the support of the DUP in the Commons null and void…)
The Prime Minister will first have to win a vote by MPs today to hold an early election thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, she cannot call an election directly, but must laydown a motion in the House of Commons. This will require two-thirds of MPs to back it. The Commons vote will follow a 90-minute debate on Wednesday, after Prime Minister’s Questions and any urgent questions or ministerial statements.
That shouldn’t be too hard for her to win given that Labour has welcomed the move, while the SNP and Liberal Democrats would find it hard to vote against it as they would be effectively voting to keep the Tories in power.
Currently, the Commons composition looks like this: the Conservatives have 330 MPs, giving the party its working majority of 16. Labour has 229, the SNP 54, and the Lib Dems 8. The DUP hold 8, Sinn Féin 4, the SDLP 3, and the UUP 2, with one Independent. Plaid Cymru have 3 seats, the Greens 1, and there are four other independents. (Note that UKIP recently lost their only MP, when Douglas Carswell announced his resignation from the party. If he votes with his old party, the Conservatives, he gives the government a majority of 17.) Based on current polling, Labour could lose around 70 seats.
The Conservative leader said the vote would give “certainty and stability” to the country for the Brexit process. As nothing promises stability and certainty quite like an early General Election on the most divisive issue of our times in Brexit.
Moreover, Theresa May might have hurt her public image slightly by calling this election. After vowing for months that she would not seek a snap election, insisting she would see the government through to the next statutory General Election in 2020, she now appears to have gone back on her word for the sake of her party, and party seats. The Independent has rather helpfully complied a list of her statements on the issue of an early election. It is worth highlighting that the most recent comment on the issue came just under a month ago.
This will be the second General Election in as many years, and the third UK-wide vote in two years. But spare a thought for my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. We have had two Assembly elections in less than a year, and now have to return to the polls in a few months. And it gets better: if there is no agreement reached between the main political parties, we face the prospect of a third Assembly election in a few months, too.
Of course, one could argue that the decision of the Cabinet to support the Prime Minister in calling for an early General Election, during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, is evidence of their (dis)regard for the peace process here. One could argue this. But as for myself, I’m digging around for my canvassing shoes. It is going to be a long few weeks.