Who would have thought that Theresa May was a risk-taker? The ultra-cautious, careful, circumspect British Prime Minister has just caught everyone by surprise by declaring a snap general election for June 8.
Various commentators have jumped to the conclusion that, with the Conservatives now 20 points ahead of the Labour Party in the polls, Mrs May is merely playing a political game she cannot lose.
On the contrary: she has surely taken a mighty risk.
True, the Labour party currently resembles a piece of wreckage floating inexorably out to sea. And yes, opinion polls have consistently given the Conservatives a commanding lead; and Mrs May has proved remarkably popular ever since she became Britain’s accidental Prime Minister when David Cameron so spectacularly miscalculated the result of last June’s EU referendum.
It’s understandable she is seeking her own mandate. Her small majority of twelve in the House of Commons means that, issue by issue, her government programme will always be threatened by the fragility of that majority.
Negotiations to exit the EU are likely to be bruising and divisive. She needs a large majority in parliament to weaken the opposition both at home and in the EU itself. With the opinion polls showing such a commanding Tory lead, and with a small window of opportunity before the EU negotiations properly get under way, calling an election now with the likely substantial increase to her majority might be considered a no-brainer.
But the way she has framed this election shows the risk she is taking. For she has made it the Brexit election. She said today she was facing an unending campaign by the opposition parties in the Commons and by the House of Lords to undermine her negotiations with the EU.
Cynical commentators think this is just an attempt to camouflage her political opportunism. After all, she did say repeatedly she would not call a snap election and so is being accused of committing that most heinous of political crimes, a U-turn.
However, while she easily faced down the opposition in both Commons and Lords over the bill enabling her to trigger the start of the Brexit process, such a continuing war of attrition would obviously undermine Britain’s negotiating position. And the strongest weapon in the opposition locker – on a rhetorical and emotional level at least, even though it has no constitutional validity – is the charge that she has no mandate to negotiate the terms on which Britain will leave the EU.
A whopping majority would silence that claim. But that is precisely the trap into which she is walking. For as the LibDems have already demonstrated, they will make this election all about those negotiating terms, in particular leaving the single market.
The danger therefore is that this general election will be a re-run of the EU referendum. The British don’t like elections; and they really, really don’t like being expected to take part in what they consider to be an unnecessary vote. Last year, they endured a bitterly divisive EU referendum campaign from which they have not fully recovered. The prospect of yet another plebiscite, and in particular one that threatens to rehash those very same arguments all over again, risks turning off the voters in droves.
This may result in a low turnout. And the danger is that, while in the referendum those voting for Brexit were galvanised to do so in great number in the realisation that this was the one vote in which they could actually achieve the outcome they wanted, those people may now sit on their hands.
It may instead be the Remainers who are galvanised by the perception that the general election is an opportunity to stop Brexit – the goal they have consistently told themselves is achievable. The 48 per cent who voted Remain are spoiling to bloody Mrs May’s nose – which she has just proferred to them so they can punch it as hard as they can.
The Prime Minister, however, is presumably banking on such Remainers having no-one to vote for since the Labour party has all but collapsed as a plausible potential government. But as she herself so tellingly observed in her election announcement today, the choice now facing voters is not between a Conservative and a Labour government. It is a between a Conservative government and a coalition between Labour, the LibDems and/or the Scottish National Party. And such a coalition is not beyond the bounds of possibility, especially if there’s a Brexit-vote backlash.
Moreover, if Nicola Sturgeon’s ScotNats do well in this election, that will be seen as a mandate for a second Scotland independence referendum. On the other hand, if they do badly the issue of Scottish independence will be off the table for the foreseeable future. Another big gamble.
Maybe Mrs May will win big. But if she only achieves a small majority after a bruising campaign, she will have weakened her own authority.
Mrs May’s tactics are as clear as they are audacious. She is presenting herself as the people’s champion versus the establishment – in this case, Parliament itself. The people have spoken, she is saying, and they want Britain to leave the EU. The opposition – or Parliament as it is presently composed – is effectively attempting to subvert and overturn that decision.
She has thus positioned herself as the leader of the popular revolt against those in the crucible of democracy who would deny democracy – by stopping her, in her own words, from “getting the job done” over Brexit. This election to the British Parliament is to be, as framed by Mrs May, the people versus Parliament, with herself as the leader of the popular revolt.
It’s an extraordinary pitch for a Prime Minister in a general election. Even more astonishing is that Mrs May was herself a Remainer until she understood that 52 per cent of the voting public had turned into an establishment-eating tiger. Now she’s planning to ride that tiger herself. The danger, though, is that it might turn round and bite her.