Just when you thought the last 12 months had provided all its political shocks, Theresa May has managed to deliver another. It’s fair to say no one saw the snap general election coming; the Prime Minister’s emphatic denials on the matter for months had seen to that. Or so we thought.
Speaking on the steps of Downing Street yesterday, Mrs May performed a complete U-turn by saying the poll, which will take place on 08 June, was necessary to give Britain stability, certainty and strong leadership following the Brexit vote. “The country is coming together,” she claimed. “But Westminster is not.”
This was a politically expedient – some may say cynical - statement, of course, aimed squarely at her own party and the pro-Brexit voters in England and Wales she hopes to attract. Many outside of these constituencies – including many Scots - will not probably not recognise the unity she speaks of, however, nor support the decision to go to the country now.
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Some, including her predecessor David Cameron, have praised the boldness and bravery of Mrs May’s move. Commentators were quick to point out that the very same attributes were lacking in Gordon Brown when he rejected the opportunity to cement his then-strong position at the polls in 2007. This decision marked the beginning of the end of his premiership.
Mrs May doesn’t want to be seen as weak and hesitant, then. So, what does she hope to achieve? Firstly, consolidation, both in the House of Commons and the electorate. And with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn leading the weakest opposition going into a general election in the post-war era, a bigger majority is undoubtedly on the cards.
Specifically, however, the Prime Minister is seeking a mandate on her plan for a Hard Brexit, one that can be used both at home and abroad to hammer home her rhetoric.
After all, the European Union (EU), which has enough on its plate with the forthcoming French and German elections, is in no mood for generosity. EU Council President Donald Tusk has made it clear negotiations are going to be tough; the UK cannot expect to come away with anything like the “win-win” agreement promised by Brexiters in the run up to last June’s vote. No deal at all is a realistic possibility. Mrs May is painfully aware of all this. A bigger majority would allow her to claim that a Hard Brexit is what the British voters want, while an early vote could prevent the EU from using a general election as a weapon further down the line.
Closer to home, meanwhile, she will be hoping a snap poll will undermine the SNP’s calls for a second independence referendum; were Nicola Sturgeon’s party to return fewer than the 56 MPs it returned in May 2015, this could be framed by Tory supporters as a “loss”.
Such a narrative may be difficult to sustain, however, particularly if the SNP wins another “majority” in Scotland, even a reduced one. Indeed, in this instance Ms Sturgeon could surely legitimately claim that her party had reiterated the mandate for a second referendum that the recent Scottish Parliament vote had already given. The SNP leader said yesterday her plan to announce more details of the proposed second referendum in the weeks to come had not changed - indeed, a general election campaign will give her the biggest platform possible to sell it to Scottish voters. Meanwhile, yesterday’s snap election announcement surely leaves Mrs May’s constant refrain of “now is not the time” and “nobody want it” in relation to a second referendum looking somewhat laughable, some may even say hypocritical.
Make no mistake, this is will be a single issue general election, though the issue in question will differ depending on where you live. In England and Wales, this is a vote on Brexit; in Scotland, it is a decision on whether to go forward with another vote on independence.
With this in mind, Mrs May’s focus on the needs of her own party over the needs of the country as whole, at arguably its most precarious political, economic and constitutional juncture since the Second World War, will be viewed by many as pure political opportunism. Now is surely not the right time to plough the country into yet another divisive political campaign, particularly when negotiations with the EU have not even started, never mind reached anywhere near the sort of stage where the electorate could be asked to vote on them.
The UK is more fractured than at any time in living memory and it is hard to see how this general election will heal these wounds. Indeed, it may pull the country even further apart.
But the date has been set and the votes will now be cast. At this stage there are many questions. Will Mrs May’s Hard Brexit plan impress voters and deliver her the majority she needs? Will Ms Sturgeon win a mandate for the second referendum? Could a Jeremy Corbyn defeat spell a genuine period of rebuilding for Labour under a new leader?
In just over seven weeks’ time, the answers to these questions will be clearer, one way or the other.