Why? That is very easy to answer. She spoke this morning of concern that her small Parliamentary majority could hamstring her Brexit negotiations right at the end point, which would also be in the run-up to a 2020 Election. No doubt CCHQ also warned her of the possible difficulties which might arise if police investigations into election expenses spent under her predecessor in 2015 resulted in a string of by-elections being ordered in Conservative seats. But the real reason is surely the same as the genuine explanation for Gordon Brown’s “bottling” of an early General Election in the autumn of 2007 – the opinion polls. Two at the weekend put her party a staggering 21 points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s wounded Labour Party. This must seem too good an opportunity to miss – offering the chance of knocking Labour so far back that it might take them at least two further elections to get back into contention.
But there are some hurdles to overcome first. Mrs May, unlike past Prime Ministers, does not have the unilateral power to set the date for an early Election after a formal trip to get the Queen’s automatic agreement. She will have to introduce a motion in the House of Commons tomorrow, and this will require two thirds of all MPs to actually turn up and vote for the early Election. That in turn will require at least 50 Labour MPs to vote for what could well be a disaster for their Party. Will they do it? Could they not find an excuse for choosing not to turn up, to vote for what they could call a “Tory stunt?” Given the collapse in discipline in the Parliamentary Labour Party, no-one should take the result tomorrow for granted, but let us assume for the moment that it does happen.
The PM has, like all those calling a contest, unleashed the possibility that voters might choose to vote on a different basis than the “clear mandate” and “issue of leadership” which she wants to frame the Election. In Scotland, the SNP could well argue that if they win the vast majority of seats north of the border again then this would be a clear mandate for a second Independence Referendum. The Liberal Democrats will aim for, and are likely to get, a significant increase in their vote share and in their number of MPs, largely at the expense of Tories in the South West of England and in leafier parts of London’s commuter belt, and will call that a mandate to resist Brexit even more vigorously. Voters have consistently shown their ability to surprise in recent contests. Trusting the opinion polls served political betters very badly in both 2015 and 2016, after all.
Mrs May nonetheless hopes and expects that she will more than offset losses to the Liberal Democrats with gains from Labour, and one Labour MP in a marginal constituency – Tom Blenkinsop – has already said that he will not seek to defend his seat. According to the weekend surveys, the Conservatives are ahead of Labour in every age group bar those aged 18-24, and have a remarkable 50 point lead among the over 65s, who are both more numerous and much more likely to vote. The Tories apparently even have a double digit lead among the working class.
One political commentator said today that Mrs May was emulating Mrs Thatcher by using the May local elections as a “springboard” into a June contest. In fact, she is doing nothing of the sort. Mrs Thatcher did not announce a June election while the local elections were still going on. Being naturally very cautious, she waited until the results came in and until she had received a computerised analysis of every detail before calling the General Elections of 1983 and 1987. Mrs May has not waited for the locals – she is gambling by aiming to go to the country anyway.
Precedents for her action are not especially encouraging. Early elections called by Ted Heath in February 1974, and by Harold Wilson in October of the same year, both saw comfortable early opinion poll leads evaporate during the campaign, ending in outright defeat for the first and a wafer-thin majority for the second. The last General Election campaign to last as long as this was the one called by John Major in 1997, who hoped that plenty of campaigning time would cause people to take a second look at Labour. We all remember how that turned out. Finally, Margaret Thatcher in 1983 seemed set to crush Labour by 2:1 in votes in almost every poll in the campaign – but in the end her majority was trimmed back a bit, as voters decided not to give her quite so big a blank cheque. At the start of that General Election, there was a move to replace the unelectable Michael Foot – a move which failed. Is it just possible that Labour might end up fighting under a different leader from Mr Corbyn? The absence of an obvious replacement might make that difficult, but….
If the motion for an early Election is passed tomorrow, Parliament will sit for a couple of weeks to wrap up Bills currently going through, and then be dissolved as campaigning proper starts in early May. Although with local election contests currently in their final stages in the English shires, and across Wales and Scotland, anyway it will seem to millions of voters as though it will have been continuous for two to three months by June 8th.
The Conservative Manifesto would be published in early May. There will be some big questions about which 2015 pledges will be jettisoned as Mrs May seeks her own mandate. Clearly delivering Brexit and expanding grammar schools will be new additions, but the Treasury will argue that the promise to preserve the triple lock for pensioners, and to rule out National Insurance rises for the self-employed, should be abandoned. There will be pressure in the Party to scrap the 0.7% target for overseas aid, and (ironically) another early casualty is likely to be the Fixed Term Parliament Act itself.
New language on energy prices also seems likely, with a scheduled Government announcement on the issue widely expected in the coming weeks (which will now become a Party pledge in the first instance).
The Manifesto may also give some insight into the Government’s negotiating strategy for Brexit. Will the target to cut immigration to the tens of thousands be scrapped? Probably not, but some language seeking flexibility is likely. Will a transitional or phased arrangement for the era beyond March 2019 be signalled? Quite likely, especially since the election after this one may not be due until 2022, giving three years to “work out the kinks” before the electorate is faced again. Will special terms for car manufacturing, or financial services, be promised or sought? It seems probable that the Manifesto will pledge to seek to protect these and other vital sectors, without going into much detail.
The rollercoaster of British politics has taken another lurch today. It remains not impossible, if on balance unlikely, that Labour MPs will choose not to be turkeys voting for Christmas tomorrow. If enough of them conclude that they want to be put out of the misery of the Corbyn era as early as possible, then we could be in for an exciting and tumultuous seven weeks to polling day. A thumping Conservative majority seems the most likely outcome – but the assumed outcomes of the last two national contests in the UK have not come to pass. There will be nails being bitten in quite a few party HQs in days to come.