Ten months on, the unexpected, or even the previously unthinkable, is now well established – the surreal has become commonplace. So, was this surprise Downing Street press conference likely to announce a general election that the prime minister has herself constantly argued she would not call?
Well, yes, of course it was. If the PM were to win a huge majority in her own right, which she certainly looks set to do if we can still put any credence in polls, no one is going to take her to task on inconsistent messaging after the event. Politicians always change their minds as circumstances change – that’s just real life.
Mrs May’s argument is that she needs the election now to give her a clean run up to the key negotiation points with the EU. An election scheduled for 2020 was likely to have distracted the cabinet and the country at a critical juncture in the process of exiting. That’s a strong constitutional argument. Is it the main reason though? Given that both France and Germany go to the polls this year Theresa May doesn’t know the complexion of the European Union she’ll be negotiating with in 2018 let alone 2020. So, a resounding election result at home now may make progress through Parliament smoother for the Conservatives but it doesn’t guarantee an easier ride on the continent.
The announcement today is not about the General Election we are about to have in June but about the election we will no longer have in 2020. So, the constitutional argument is very much secondary to the politics. When the PM calls the election after next she will be able to do so at a time she can dictate based on the progress of the EU negotiations and whatever else she needs to achieve domestically.
But what about constitutional issues within the UK? A general election now will certainly distract from talk of a possible Scottish independence referendum. Mrs May must be hoping that the slow but discernible recovery of the Scottish Conservatives indicates a chink in Nicola Sturgeon’s armour. It’s hard to see how the SNP can improve on its election result of 2015 when it achieved near total dominance of seats north of the border. Any reduction in their representation will be spun hard by the Tories as reason to suggest that a referendum is not in interest of Scotland or the UK. We can expect Ruth Davidson to play a high-profile role in the general election campaign.
If Labour are eviscerated as seems psephologically inevitable Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is over. Is that in Mrs May’s interests? Not obviously but she and the cabinet are banking on the relative irrelevance of the Labour party regardless of who leads it. Mrs May must be looking to the recent history of her own party when in the early 2000’s it ran through successive leaders – some better than others – but without success. No one was interested in what Hague, IDS and Howard had to say. Likewise, the PM is gambling, will be the case with Labour – even with a stronger opposition leader its Mrs May who holds and dictates the agenda especially if she finally has a personal mandate from the public.