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 the case 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.