Politics

Seeking a mandate

Even before Theresa May became prime minister, we said that she ought ‘to seek the mandate of a general election within six months of taking office’. Well, it took slightly longer than that, nearer eleven months, but it’s still the right decision.

Of course, it’s an opportunist move, capitalizing on Labour’s weakness – but politicians being opportunist is hardly the stuff of front-page exclusives. Of course, it’s cynical, trying to negate the impact of the election expenses scandal – but we refer you to the answer we gave a moment ago. And of course, it’s a distraction from Brexit negotiations – but there’s not going to be much political activity when French and German domestic politics are in a state of flux; civil servants will presumably continue to work.

The real argument is about democracy. And here there’s no doubt. When James Callaghan in 1976 and Gordon Brown in 2007 took over as prime ministers, they could at least claim to be continuity candidates. The same is not true today. This is not the government we voted for in 2015, and we should have the right to confirm or reject it.

Obviously the operative word there is ‘confirm’. It takes a vivid imagination to see anything other than a Conservative victory on 8 June. And a catastrophic result for Labour.

One of the great political clichés is that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. But that’s not entirely true. In 1983 Michael Foot’s Labour lost the election. The same was true of Neil Kinnock‘s Labour in 1992, and indeed Ed Miliband‘s Labour in 2015. None of these were defeated by strong, competent governments boasting a track record of success; they were beaten because, on every occasion, the opposition leader simply didn’t look like a credible prime minister.

It is as certain as anything can be in politics that the same will be true this time. True, a poll published a couple of days ago showed public support for Labour policies on free school meals, a higher minimum wage and increased income tax for other people. But none of that counts for anything, because Jeremy Corbyn does not look like a credible party leader. He never did, he doesn’t now, and he won’t in seven weeks’ time, when we go to the polling stations. His own MPs don’t support him and – notwithstanding the complaints of party members – MPs matter.

What makes it so much worse for Labour this time is that the rest of the front-line are equally unconvincing. In 1983 Foot’s team was genuinely impressive: Peter Shore as shadow chancellor, Denis Healey as shadow foreign secretary and Roy Hattersley as shadow home secretary. Their counterparts today are John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott. By any criteria – save that of gender-balance – this is not an improvement.

Unlike 1983, of course, the other opposition parties don’t offer any compelling alternatives either. But Labour – whose performance two years was itself a disaster – is still vulnerable to further wastage, both to the Liberal Democrats and to UKIP. There are no obvious places where new votes can be found. The party was even denied the kind of harsh winter that pushes the NHS up the political agenda.

The Conservative Party, on the other hand, can afford to lose votes to the Lib Dems, safe in the knowledge that Tory defectors to UKIP will come home – the Eurosceptic mission has been accomplished and Paul Nuttall is no Nigel Farage. There’s even the possibility of a couple of Tory gains in Scotland.

We’d like to be controversial and predict a shock result, but there is nothing, literally nothing, that points to anything other than an increased Conservative majority.

So we’ll be controversially optimistic instead, and end on a positive note. The likely outcome means that May will be able to ignore more comfortably the hardcore anti-Europeans in the parliamentary party. Her position will be strengthened in negotiating Brexit because she’ll be operating with the double-mandate of the referendum and an election. And the chances are that the UK will emerge with a better deal as a result.

artwork-theresa-may

We’ve been expecting you…

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One thought on “Seeking a mandate

  1. May is strong on political strategy. She let the boys fight over BREXIT and then took over on the grounds that she was the last person standing. Given that she apparently saw Osborne as an arrested adolescent, I wonder what she made of Gove’s behaviour in the leadership campaign.

    May looked ahead to BREXIT negotiations and saw problems. Not from the 8 Lib Dem MPs or from the befuddled ranks of Labour MPs, but from her own backbenchers, most of whom were Remainers. Add to this the possible loss of seats in by-elections due to charges being brought over Tory financing of the 2015 election campaign. May saw a majority in Parliament that she could not rely on and which in any case might disappear.

    One of the principles on which political stability depends is the convention that MPs can be whipped to support what was in the party manifesto but not to support a measure that was not in it. A commitment to negotiate an exit from the EU was not in the 2015 Tory manifesto. It will be in the 2017 manifesto. Conservative MPs and candidates are therefore being offered a choice: commit yourself to supporting BREXIT in the voting lobbies of the House of Commons or stand aside. Few will put principle before political career.

    I agree that Tories who defected to UKIP will come back. Labour will be an irrelevance. The potential for surprise is tactical voting in favour of the Lib Dems by people who wish to prevent BREXIT. I agree, however, that it is unlikely to prevent May winning a working majority.

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