Quick disclaimer at the start: this post does not even attempt to appear politically neutral.
Just like every pretentious War Studies student since the dawn of time, politicians love taking lessons from Sun Tzu’s the Art of War. It seems Theresa May is no different. Her surprise announcement of a snap General Election to take place on June 8th this year certainly could have been lifted straight from the Great General’s playbook: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”
Almost no-one saw this coming, especially as our beloved PM was insisting only last year that she would definitely, definitely not be calling an election before 2020. Obviously, politicians have never had a particularly good reputation for truth-telling, but at least they used to be a bit more subtle about it. One of the most insidious effects of Trump winning the US Presidency has been to teach mainstream politicians that they can now blatantly contradict themselves in the sure knowledge that the consequences will be minimal. Not only did the Orange Blob vividly demonstrate how you can be repeatedly exposed as a hypocrite and a liar (often on video) and still win elections, but the news cycle moves so fast these days that any negative attention lasts for no more than about 3 hours. Then Trump tweets that he’s declaring war on Papua New Guinea or whatever and the media moves on.
Anyway, the strategic rationale behind May’s decision to call a General Election is pretty straightforward and can be summarised into three main points:
- All the polling puts the Conservatives way ahead of Labour. It seems like the Tories will have a good chance of significantly improving on their currently slim Parliamentary majority. I’m sure May looked at the example of Gordon Brown, the previous example of an unelected Prime Minister, who decided against calling a snap election in 2007 and ended up losing the next one in 2010. Apparently he still regrets the decision and May is determined to avoid his fate.
- May wants to be able to start the Brexit negotiations with a big political mandate that she can then slap down on the table in front of the EU. “Look, not only did the UK vote for Brexit, they’ve also just sent a clear message that they want me to get on with the job.” She thinks this will give her more leverage with the EU, but I actually don’t see how it will make much difference. The EU’s negotiating position will be the same regardless: the UK cannot be given a better deal than full membership. May can swing her new mandate around all she wants, but that fundamental principle will not change.
- The final point is part of a longer game. Due to the EU’s aforementioned negotiating position, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Brexit is going to leave people in the UK materially worse off, at least in the short-term. Having an election now means that the next one won’t happen until 2022, giving the country an extra two years to absorb the costs of Brexit. May is gambling that the negative effects on the economy will be less severe by that point, meaning that the political fallout will be reduced.
One point I have deliberately not mentioned yet is the so-called ‘National Interest’. May continues to claim that there is no deeper strategy to this, she’s calling a General Election because it’s for the good of the country. This is transparently bullshit. She’s calling an election because she thinks it’s in her and the Conservative Party’s interest for her to do so. To demonstrate this, let’s do a simple thought experiment. If the polls were the other way around, with Labour well ahead and the Tories struggling, do you think May would still have called an election? No? Then it can’t only be in the national interest. If it were, the state of the polls would be irrelevant. As she has since become an overnight celebrity, it seems ‘Brenda from Bristol’ did a pretty good job of summarising how most people feel towards the whole charade.
Despite all the negativity, I do have a funny feeling that Our Dear Theresa might end up regretting this decision. National polling is all well and good, but a General Election under the UK’s ‘First Past the Post’ system is fought at the constituency as well as the national level. The recent Richmond Park by-election, where Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith was ousted by the Lib Dems, shows how Tories representing constituencies that voted Remain in the referendum are at risk. The SNP are likely to win big again in Scotland. The Lib Dems, now reinvented as the full-throated pro-European party of the 48%, may well make a comeback (although as they currently only have 9 MPs, they’re starting from a pretty low base). It seems unavoidable that the real losers from this election will be the Labour Party. Leaving aside for a moment the questions around the leadership and the ongoing internal rifts within the Party, the more pressing problem is: Who do they represent? Who is their target audience? If you’re in favour of Brexit, you’re probably going to vote Tory or UKIP. If you’re against Brexit, you may be looking at the Lib Dems or the Greens (or the SNP if you’re in Scotland). John McDonnell can disagree all he wants, the reality is that this election will be fought on Brexit and Labour has managed to put themselves in a position where they don’t really represent anyone on that front.
Finally, I want to concentrate on something May said in her statement announcing the election. She said:
“At this moment of enormous national significance, there should be unity here in Westminster but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.”
First of all, I don’t think many people can remember a time when the country was LESS unified, but never mind. Second of all, I’m not sure what our Glorious Leader thinks democracy is, but the last time I checked it involved opposition, discussion and debate. We all know she’s had some kind of bizarre Road to Damascus moment since supporting Remain during the EU referendum, when the Bright Lights of Brexit shone down upon her and showed her the One True Path, but that’s her business. The rest of us are absolutely not obliged to join her on that sinking ship full of people like Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Fucking Farage et al, and we have the right to tell her why not. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s deepest fantasies, we are not yet living in Venezuela. Just because the government says something does not mean everyone else has to shut up and agree lest they be tear-gassed into submission. Or maybe Theresa has been watching too many videos of Turkey’s President Erdogan whilst thinking “he’s got the right idea”.
Besides, I shouldn’t be too angry. Theresa might think she’s played her hand perfectly, but what she’s really done is present a chance to everyone who’s depressed about the turn of events in this country since June 23rd 2016. Admittedly it’s only a small chance, but in the immortal words of Captain Zapp Brannigan: “If we can hit that bullseye, the rest of the dominoes will fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.”
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