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From the start of her tenure as Prime Minister, Theresa May ruled out the prospect of an early general election, and recently ruled it out again. She holds that the Conservative party won a mandate in May 2015, and that she has inherited it. This is a traditional view, and it’s a sensible one in light of an obvious need to calm the markets, give the electorate a respite from drama, and project an image of stability abroad.
It’s true that an election at this point is unnecessary: The Tories have a majority although not a massive one, and Labour, having re-elected the lunatic (and severely unpopular) Jeremy Corbyn to its leadership, could only lose more seats. What’s more, it’s not even clear she could call a new election. A new law, the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act, takes away the prime minister’s power to call a general election on his or her own initiative. To comply with the law, May would need the support of two-thirds of the parliament. So even if all 330 Conservatives agreed, she would still need Labour votes. Labour MPs have no incentive to support her because they’re sure to lose even more of the few seats they have. (Here’s a good explainer about the new law and what it means for May.)
This hasn’t stilled the speculation, though, nor has it quieted the tabloids who are calling for her to earn her own mandate at the polls. A number of Tory backbenchers also think it would be to their advantage to hold an election sooner; after all, an opponent as weak as Jeremy Corbyn comes around but rarely. That’s too tempting an opportunity to pass up. Polls show that May could quadruple her majority if an election were held today. Many fear that by 2020, when she is obliged to go to the polls, the effects of Brexit will have soured voters on the party
Jake Berry, the Tory MP for Rossendale and Darwen, told The Telegraph an early election would help her pass policy changes more easily and avoid any backlash from Brexit negotiations.
“An election in 2020 would effectively be an election on the Brexit deal, which could potentially open the door to Labour if the public are not happy,” he said.
“If we had an election next year it would push the next vote over to 2022, where we will have had more of an opportunity to see if Brexit succeeded or failed.”
An early election would strengthen May’s hand in the Brexit negotiations. If she were elected with a convincing mandate — which she would be — opponents of Brexit wouldn’t be able to say that May doesn’t have enough democratic legitimacy to do something as momentous as trigger Article 50. That isn’t the only tricky issue she confronts without the full legitimacy of a vote behind her: She’s vowed, for example, to usher in massive reforms to the educational system, but her plans weren’t in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, and a number of influential Tory backbenchers oppose her.
There’s every indication the Brexit negotiations will be brutal, and that it will be a very long time before the economic benefits, if any, become obvious to voters. France and Germany are facing restless electorates. Both Hollande and Merkel are focused above all on keeping their economies above water. The French are now eagerly and openly fantasizing about the benefits to them should a flood of highly-skilled bankers be deprived of the ability to work from London and forced to move to Paris. Merkel is going to protect Germany’s export market at all costs. (Or, to be precise, at a high cost. I shouldn’t exaggerate. There really was once a Germany that protected its export markets at all costs; but for now the Furor Teutonicus has passed.)
For those of you who’d like to dig deeper into Brexit, here are two unusually good articles I’ve read recently: The first is a profile of Daniel Hannan, a Conservative member of the European parliament for southeast England and one of Brexit’s key intellectual architects — the intellectual architect, if journalist Sam Knight is correct. I heard Hannan speak to the Mont Pelerin Society in Istanbul once. Knight’s evocation of him is really successful; he captures Hannan’s personality perfectly.
Next, by Nick Herbert: Hard Brexit Ideologues Threaten Britain’s Future: While he doesn’t explicitly refer to Hannan, it seems to me that’s exactly who he had in mind when he wrote, “Dreams of quick trade deals with far-flung nations are staggeringly naive. Britain’s continuing success depends on the terms we reach with Europe.”
Yesterday, @aaronmiller started an interesting discussion about political legitimacy. In light of that discussion, and of the unusual circumstances of Brexit, do you think May would be well or poorly-advised to hold the election sooner? If so, why? If not, why not?
In December, I’ll be hitting the road and going to London — thanks to your support — to speak to politicians and ordinary people about Brexit, Theresa May, and how Britain is changing. I’ll also be there for Vladimir Bukovsky’s trial (and I’ll be one of the very few journalists covering that story). I’d be hugely grateful for any help you can give me to defray the expenses of that trip.
Soon I’ll be unveiling a new Brave Old World website where you’ll be able to get regular book updates, keep track of my interview schedule, and find photos, videos, and audio recordings. There will be some special surprises for those of you who’ve contributed so far. So please stay tuned …