Here we go again. The country will probably go to the polls again for the third time in two years. The PM will be criticised in many quarters for her u-turn. She was categorical in September 2016 in saying that she wouldn’t go to the country but has succumbed to the temptation of cynical opportunism to bury a rudderless and increasingly irrelevant Labour Party under our Jezza. But it is the right decision. It’s not without risk of course in this predictably unpredictable global political climate, but the decision has been made with, in this author’s opinion at least, a shrewd and hard-nosed calculus that should see Mrs May prevail on a number of fronts. She is finally showing unequivocal leadership, throwing down gauntlets to the opposition parties and her own ministers and backbenchers (some of whom will be sweating uncomfortably in their staunchly pro Remain seats. Just look at what happened in Richmond.). And, interestingly, to our estranged friends on the continent who will be dissecting the Conservative manifesto position on Brexit with forensic scrutiny.
Unlike Call Me Dave’s arrogant roll of the dice that blithely pre-empted the outcome of his EU referendum announcement as a foregone conclusion to Remain, Mrs May’s bolt from the blue announcement this morning is a carefully considered appraisal of the risks and rewards. Despite the fashion for political volatility, I don’t see this as the gamble that some do. She was elected as leader of the Conservative party, defaulting as an unelected PM off the back of campaigning on the losing Remain ticket and inheriting a second hand Tory manifesto that was clearly not in her mould. She needs to shoot this fox and craft her own manifesto blueprint.
That this has become a political imperative is down to the machinations in both the Commons and the Lords as to how the government have been held to task (albeit with no statutory consequence) over the Bill triggering Article 50. Ironically and shamefully lambasted by hardcore Brexiteers as evidence of Parliamentary sovereignty frustrating the democratic will of the people, such valid and constructive scrutiny has rather soured the milk in Mrs May’s cup of English Breakfast. The Conservatives only have a working majority of 19; given that the nitty-gritty of negotiations hasn’t even started yet and the capriciousness of her backbenchers (on both sides of the Leave/Remain coin), this is uncomfortably wafer. She needs a Brexit manifesto that the party can unite and campaign behind, whilst giving the recalcitrants a large enough box that she can lock the lid on.
Intriguingly, a general election will necessarily flush the government’s hitherto fiercely protected negotiating positions into the open. Only then will we be able to decipher the riddle of “Brexit means Brexit”. That is not to say that the manifesto will not be couched in generalities and a degree of opacity to maximise negotiating wiggle room, but transparency should be much improved. Leaving aside the ultimate deliverability of manifesto commitments when the negotiations are realised, my expectation is that such a move will be welcomed in Brussels, even if the PM is using the British public as the mouthpiece. Furthermore, Mrs May will need to do some serious cozying up to the 48% Remain brigade whose voice will be emboldened once more if she is to deliver that substantially increased majority. Far from pandering to the set of hardcore Brexiteer loons in her party, this could be the dangling carrot that softens the Brexit stick.
And what of the charge of cynical opportunism, magnified by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that should not have delivered another election until 2020 except by Commons vote? Well, that’s politics. Opportunism and capitalising on your enemies’ weakness is the name of the game. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher (also cynically perhaps) called a snap election after the Falklands War to both exploit the popular euphoria of giving the Argies a damn good thrashing and the shambles of Labour under Worzel Gummidge, sorry, Michael Foot. She won a landslide. Thirty four years on and 2017 feels analogous. This election will only be about Brexit, with every other important and thorny government issue (like grammar schools and the NHS) deliberately consigned to the small print unfortunately. Under Worzel Gummidge Jnr, Labour are probably just as electorally unpalatable and ineffective as Her Majesty’s Opposition as they were in 1983. The party is on the precipice of irrelevance (I would expect the Lib Dems to be resurgent, picking up votes from blue and red, although from a base of only nine MPs it will hardly represent 2010’s Second Coming). Jez dare not oppose the Commons vote but his lack of cohesive Brexit policy and his pitifully feeble credentials to be PM give him the air of Dead Man Walking. Political euthanasia beckons. And Theresa is hovering with the syringe.
And The Sturge? Given the Nats almost monopolistic grip over the Scottish seats in Westminster (holding 56 out of the 59), I see the PM’s strike as nothing but an unwanted headache. Not having an outright majority in Holyrood, the SNP has little to gain but potentially a lot to lose. Their policy record in Holyrood is shite, propped up only by the Greens against an increasingly effective and less toxic brand of Conservatism under the impressive and likeable Ruth Davidson. Chuck in yet another trip to the ballot box on top of The Sturge’s demand for IndyRef#2 and hacked off, electorally fatigued voters may wish to deliver the SNP a bloody beak in the good ol’ fashioned sense of not delivering on their day job. And this will inevitably undermine the viability of IndyRef#2. Ruth will exploit this frailty well, ruthlessly.
Voter fatigue may not just be endemic in Scotland. The rest of the UK may be afflicted too. And this could be Mrs May’s biggest problem, especially if the negative popular perception is that she’s politicking to force her advantage. Perhaps. But the PM’s approval ratings are high and she has thus far delivered on what she promised when she assumed office. Voters should trust her to finish the Brexit job with a fresh and empowered mandate delivered by those same voters.
However Brexit was interpreted by the binary question posed last June, an election supported by party manifestos will sharpen and crystallise the debate. The smoke and mirrors approach of the government thus far should be replaced by a degree of codified clarity. That should be in everybody’s interests.
U-turns are no bad thing if they get you to your destination. Good call.