Before the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011, Prime Ministers had the ability to call an election before the current Parliamentary term expired. Some PMs did so expecting to take advantage of favourable political circumstances to improve their Parliamentary representation.
In 1966, Labour PM Harold Wilson called an election a mere 18 months after Labour entered government.
His majority rose from 4 to nearly 100.
But sometimes PMs are forced by unfavourable circumstances into calling an election. Wilson’s successor, James Callaghan, lost a vote of no confidence in his government in 1979, forcing an early election.
Labour’s last election victory was in 2005, but it is easy to forget that they might have won again in 2007 had Gordon Brown called an election. He had been in Downing Street for a matter of months and polls showed a comfortable lead for Labour.
But, in the words of then-Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Conservative Party David Cameron, Gordon Brown is “the first Prime Minister in history to flunk an election because he thought he was gonna win it.” Brown did not use the privilege of setting an early date for the next election, and, when the Parliamentary term eventually came to an end, suffered one of Labour’s heaviest election defeats.
The lesson to be learned is that PMs should know when to take advantage of their enemies’ weaknesses- they must exploit with surgical precision faltering or electorally vulnerable opposition parties before their advantage disappears. As Brown all too adequately demonstrated, there is no room for hesitation.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act means not only that Brown’s mistake cannot be repeated, but that PMs are now more likely than before to be victims of the election cycle. Without the power to call or delay an election, PMs can only hope that political and economic circumstances favour them when the next scheduled election comes.
The irony of the beginning of Theresa May’s tenure as PM is that she faces perhaps the bleakest inheritance of a recent PM, yet benefits from extraordinarily favourable electoral circumstances.
It goes without saying that May has her work cut out for her: Brexit to negotiate, high immigration to bring down, potential future economic problems to deal with, and all the difficulties that come with invigorating and directing a party already into its seventh year in office. That the Conservatives’ electoral prospects for a “snap election”, as they used to be called, are so favourable perhaps offers May some comfort.
Or they would if the power to call a “snap election” remained in May’s hands.
Prior to 2011, the major political events of an unexpected referendum result and a change in PM would be pretext enough to justify an early election. Unfortunately for May, though, since 2011 more justification is needed for an election before the five-year term expires.
True, Parliament can still vote to dissolve itself before 2020, but taking advantage of Labour’s present weakness is undoubtedly made harder for May by the 2011 legislation.
An election in 2017 would likely be a genuinely multi-party contest between the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP, unlike the two-party domination we have seen in recent elections. Like at the 1983 election, the Liberals and UKIP stand a good chance of attracting votes from Labour itself, but not enough to win a large number of seats. Left-wing voters would be split between two rivals for the anti-austerity platform (Lib Dems and Labour), enabling the Conservatives’ core of supporters to sweep the swing constituencies and possibly plenty of Labour heartlands as well.
A not unreasonable scenario to contemplate is Labour being reduced to 150 Commons seats and the Conservatives winning as many as 400, giving them a Parliamentary cushion on which to sit for another election or two to come.
If May has learned anything from Brown’s and Wilson’s examples, however, she will know that her opportunity to give the Conservatives a much larger majority is ripening. And provided she has the stomach for it, May won’t baulk at finding a pretext for a fresh election and snapping up this appetising prospect.
A result of a 2017 election similar to the one outlined above would do considerable damage to the case for a Labour government in the next ten years. Not only would the electoral arithmetic mean Labour had a hard job breaking down a large Conservative majority, but the battle of ideas would have to be won from scratch, a defeat of this kind reaffirming the public consensus around what the Conservatives have called “living within our means” and avoiding further indebting the UK.
Labour’s current all-out fire-fight against austerity has already been rejected in its moderated form under Ed Miliband. The inevitable rejection of Labour’s more uncompromising anti-austerity platform under Corbyn would force the party (or at least its moderate elements) to understand that “living within our means” is, like acceptance of PM Margaret Thatcher’s Free Market before it, an indispensable framework within which parties of government must work.
There is still a chance that moderate Labour MPs could split from the Labour Party and form their own party. These politicians would be more likely to accept the new consensus around “living within our means”. But it is possible that Corbyn’s Labour would continue in the same vein as they are now. And in failing to understand the reasons for their defeat in a 2017 General Election, bitterness at the rejection by the centre ground would guide the hard left of the Labour Party further into the abyss of student-activist socialism.
The only problem with such an electoral victory from May’s point of view is that it has the potential to undermine her already indefinite pledges to govern for the whole of the UK. With the Conservatives winning heavily in England, the SNP would also likely repeat their 2015 sweep of Scotland in a 2017 General Election.
The electoral map of the UK would be effectively partitioned between the SNP in Scotland and the Conservatives in England, two one-party nations operating simultaneously, and probably for a good few elections down the line. The SNP might, depending on the electoral fortunes of Labour, UKIP and the Lib Dems even become the strongest voice of opposition to the Conservatives in the House of Commons.
A dangerous sense of “the party of England versus the party of Scotland” could undermine May’s efforts to negotiate Brexit on terms all four nations of the UK can live with.
But with a large majority, May could cope with an entrenched SNP electoral position in Scotland- as long as she lives up to her pledge to involve the Scottish Executive in the Brexit negotiations. I doubt Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon or Scotland as a whole will thank Theresa May for this, given that the UK would leave the EU in any case, but it is certainly better to do so than not.
The problem of having to implement a decision with which she disagreed will have some bearing on May’s legacy as PM. Her legacy in Scotland, for instance, will be coloured in large part by Brexit. On economics, May’s government faces the prospect of being defined by low growth and prolonged austerity; and anything less than a massive reduction in immigration will not be enough to satisfy Leave voters.
But one aspect of her legacy that will be secure, if she is bold enough to make it so, will be the winning of an epoch-defining majority in the House of Commons for the Conservatives.
Shortly after Labour’s post-Brexit crisis began, Andrew Neil of the BBC asked historian David Starkey if Tony Blair’s legacy would soon be rehabilitated from the controversy surrounding the Iraq War to “the last Labour leader to win a General Election”. Starkey replied simply, and immediately, “Yes.”
This shows how seriously commentators are taking the possibility of a Labour split and the implications I have outlined for a much extended period of Conservative government.
May will not have freedom to completely shape her own legacy, but the opportunity is there for her in the next year to make 400 Conservative members of the House of Commons part of that legacy.
Conservative government for the next ten years is there for the taking- and if May does not hesitate all those years may prove to be hers.