How we got here
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that her Government would seek to hold a General Election on 8 June this year. Since the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 was implemented, General Elections can no longer be called at the whim of the Prime Minister, and instead are held every five years, unless the House of Commons votes with a 2/3 majority to hold one, or a Vote of No Confidence in the Government is passed. On Wednesday, the Commons debated the former, and MPs voted 522-13 in favour of an 8 June General Election.
What comes now
Parliament will then dissolve on 3 May, five weeks before the election. From that point, there are no longer any MPs as they campaign to be re-elected. Ministers retain their posts and continue to carry out the business of government, however there are restrictions on political activity that can be carried out by Ministers, Civil Servants and departments during this period – known as purdah.
In many places around the country, purdah will already be in place as Local Elections are taking place around the UK on 4 May: all Scottish and Welsh local authorities, all county councils in England, a few English unitary authorities, Doncaster metropolitan borough council, and the new Metro Mayor elections in six English combined authority areas. (Take a look at our briefings on the Metro Mayor elections here). There was due to be a by-election in Manchester Gorton on 4 May, after longstanding MP Sir Gerald Kaufman passed away in February, but it is possible that this will be ‘countermanded’ and instead held as part of the General Election on 8 June.
Theresa May’s announcement on Tuesday caught everyone off guard, with speculation running wild as to what her announcement was to be about. It was particularly surprising given the Prime Minister’s repeated statements that she was not looking to hold a ‘snap’ election before 2020 – as recently as 30 March. In an interview with The Sunday Times in October, May had said that an early vote would cause “instability” in the country during the Brexit negotiations. So, why has she now changed her mind? There are several factors that could have influenced her decision.
First of all, it will add legitimacy to Theresa May’s government. A week can be a long time in politics, but the 2015 General Election feels like a generation ago. Her Government is currently constrained by working towards the Cameron-Osborne manifesto commitments, and the political and economic landscape has changed vastly since then. Theresa May will want to campaign and deliver a new policy platform, which her government has so far found difficult. It has been restricted by some of its own backbenchers for trying to do things not in the 2015 manifesto (Grammar schools) and had to u-turn on others for going against a 2015 commitment (National Insurance rises.)
Then there is the question of Brexit. The Government will clearly see this campaign as an opportunity to get a popular mandate for its implementation of last year’s referendum. Theresa May’s statement outside Downing Street on Tuesday made it clear that she felt the vote would strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, and would send a message to those who are opposing the Brexit process that they are standing in the way of popular will. “The country is coming together but Westminster is not,” she said, adding “division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.”
Both these points can be seen as valid (although as Yvette Cooper pointed out in Wednesday’s PMQs, neither the Commons nor Lords has yet prevented any of the Government’s Brexit decisions from going ahead), but they were as valid yesterday as they were a month ago, or as when May definitively told The Sunday Times that she would not hold an election before 2020. So what has materially changed in the past weeks?
Perhaps, it is the near-daily polling coming out showing the deepening unpopularity of the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. Some recent polls have put the Conservatives nearly 20 percentage points ahead of Labour, and the Tories are regularly achieving numbers in the mid-40% range, their highest for more than twenty years. Theresa May is personally preferred, with as many as 55% of voters responding that she would be the best choice for Prime Minister, compared with only 18% who favour Jeremy Corbyn. It may have been that weeks and months of this encouraging polling was simply too much for May to resist. With a slim working majority, a General Election against a weak Labour party might be the best opportunity the Conservatives get to achieve a landslide majority. Talk is of the Conservatives winning 400 seats, and analysis from psephologist Prof. John Curtice suggests that a 100 seat majority is not out of the question. A larger majority combined with a new mandate, and less need to spend time placating a handful of troublesome backbenchers, would leave May in a much stronger position than currently.
What to look out for
From the Prime Minister’s announcement to many of the immediate responses, this General Election is certainly going to be framed primarily around Brexit. The Conservatives want a mandate to continue delivering what they have started and to strengthen their hand during negotiations – while Conservatives will be lining up to talk about Theresa May’s competency and leadership, in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived lack thereof. The Liberal Democrats, and the SNP will position themselves firmly against the government’s Brexit agenda – while the SNP will continue to push for a second independence referendum. This leave Labour in a tricky situation as its position on Brexit is muddled – it has supported Theresa May so far on Article 50, yet opposes a “hard” Brexit. Labour will instead try to shift the focus onto issues it is more comfortable with, such as education, health and social care.
There are a few points that seem to be established so far as “conventional wisdom” as outcomes for this campaign:
• The Labour party will lose a raft of seats, as many as 70, primarily to the Conservative party in areas of the North of England which voted to leave the European Union.
• The Liberal Democrats will continue their surge which has seen them perform very well in recent local by-elections and in the Richmond Park by-election, where they ousted Zac Goldsmith. They may regain many of the seats they lost in 2015, particularly those lost to the Conservatives in the South East and South West.
Current polling would point towards the above occurring on 8 June, however much could change in the next seven weeks, and we have seen from the US and French elections that polling can fluctuate dramatically in short spaces of time, with real outcomes not always matching polls. Television debates may give other candidates a chance to shine in a format anathema to Theresa May; Jeremy Corbyn may gain a new lease of life on the campaign trail and build on some of Labour’ more popular recent policy announcements; weeks of coverage presenting a ‘foregone conclusion’ combined with ‘election apathy’ among the public could depress turnout on the day and dampen the impact of swings shown by polls; external events could unexpectedly shape the campaign.
Whether or not this will strengthen May’s hand when it comes to Brexit negotiations – her stated purpose for the new vote – is to be seen. It will be important for her to manage expectations too – continuing discussions of a 100 majority could mean anything less is seen as a failure. Although the Conservatives will almost certainly gain at Labour’s expense, the Liberal Democrats are just as likely to re-gain seats from the Conservatives. The election could also strengthen Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s resolve – and give them a mandate – to push for a second independence referendum, and May’s previous claim that “this is not the time” for such an election will ring hollow after the PM has called for a snap General Election. Conversely, this campaign might give the Unionists – lead by the very popular Ruth Davidson – the opportunity to put together a positive case for the United Kingdom, and there could be a few Conservative gains north of the border.
Certainly, there is a lot at stake on 8 June.