An election that doesn’t work for everyone – the case against an early election
In a year which has seen elections in London, Scotland, Wales much of England and across the UK, it seems extraordinary that we might be subjected to another early poll. Yet rumours abound of a snap election. One hack claims MPs have been secretly taken into No. 10 to have their election photo with the new PM.
This is why I don’t think it’s going to happen. (Warning – predictions made on this blog are subject to change.)
- Most MPs have good reasons NOT to want an election
In the heady days of the Conservative leadership election I was reassured by a senior MP that there would not be an early election “because the Conservatives don’t want an election and there are more Conservatives than all the other parties put together”. The last election was only 18 months ago and, as the first election subject to the Fixed-Terms Parliament Act, followed a very long election campaign. Elections are hard work, this has been a long year and there simply is not the appetite. For some MPs the reasons are specific. Select Committee Chairs want to serve their full term. MPs planning to retire at 2020 want four years’ more salary and pension. New ministers are only just getting their feet under the table. New MPs do not want to become a footnote in history if something goes wrong in their constituency. In short, the prime minister would have to persuade a lot of her colleagues to put other interests ahead of their immediate comfort. Not easy.
- Only some Labour MPs want an early election
Opposition MPs cannot do other than publicly state that they want an election. And Labour moderates might think that an early poll could rid them of Corbyn and his cronies. Except that it might not: amongst the 30 or so seats that are vulnerable on current polling are anti-Corbyn MPs like John Woodcock, Wes Streeting and Mary Creagh. For lots of MPs it would amount to turkeys voting for Christmas. And Corbyn might stay put even if Labour loses badly.
- The Fixed-Term Parliament Act makes it harder
The Act has never been tested and the principle that no parliament can bind its successor could override the Act, in theory. In practice, the Act is a fig-leaf which allows the government to say that holding an early election is tricky even if desirable. The Conservative Party Chairman, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, has doggedly stuck to the line that the election will be May 2020 because of the Act. A concerted effort to unpick or repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act might be an indicator that the prime minister wants that flexibility back. Restoring the royal prerogative is a constitutional lawyer’s dream, but nobody knows if it can be done.
- For the Conservatives winning in 2020 looks likely in any case
“Why would we not want to let Labour have another three years of this?” was another argument I heard against a snap election from a veteran MP at the party conference. This is less convincing as it is predicated on Brexit being a walk in the park in the general direction of sunlit uplands. Indeed, the most compelling argument for an early election is that the going gets so sticky that only an election can break the impasse. Even so, anxiety that Brexit negotiations are going badly would not seem propitious grounds for a new mandate. This scenario is the Liberal Democrats’ best hope, which means that Tories in former Lib Dem seats will be against it.
- The prime minister has said no to an early election
Theresa May has been unequivocal: “I’m not going to be calling a snap election. I’ve been very clear that I think we need that period of time, that stability, to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing and have that election in 2020.” The prime minister is a woman of her word and to break it would be out of character and potentially reckless. Of course, there are circumstances in which she could argue that the national interest requires her to change her position but I think she would be loath to do so.
So that leaves the arguments for a snap poll. Firstly, the current polls are fantastic for the Tories. Secondly, Theresa May has not won a mandate of her own and she would address the issues that grieved Gordon Brown over legitimacy if she went to the country early. Thirdly, it is easy to forget how slender is the Conservatives’ majority – the prime minister’s Brexit and domestic agenda could be vulnerable to very tight votes. That’s enough to encourage lobby hacks to stoke the rumour for sure. But every argument comes back to the same place. An early election requires more MPs to want it than not, and, as I write, most of them are just fine where they are.