General Election 2017 - The Lady has turned (again)
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The calling of the June 2017 General Election was a surprise for several reasons: Firstly, Theresa May had said - on six separate occasions in her first few months in office - that she was not going to call an early election. Secondly, that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act sets out in law that this Parliament is due to expire in 2020.
We could reasonably assume – as the parlous state of the Labour Party’s candidate selection process and manifesto preparation demonstrated this morning – that 2020 was going to be the date. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that all the major parties have rolled over and played dead to May’s demand for this election – they could have very easily blocked it, by not voting for it. As it is, the turkey that is the Labour Party has not only voted for Christmas, it has brought the gift of a book of stuffing recipes too.
Seeing this election as being about the decimation of the Parliamentary Labour Party is as obvious as it is seductive, but it is also wrong. Yes, the Labour opposition is in disarray, led by a leader who seems almost uniquely ill-equipped for the job, it does not know how to oppose (save for Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn’s rather valiant efforts) and it is pulled in at least four different and contradictory directions around Brexit, Scottish independence, tax and spend, and defence and security. According to the polling done for The Times it is also 21% behind in the opinion polls: a yawning chasm of a gap to make up in 7 weeks.
But the Labour Party does not need an intervention from Theresa May to consign it a further generation out of power – it has been doing that all on its own, far more effectively than the Conservatives could ever inflict on it. There is also a strong line of thought that a Corbyn leadership that made it through to 2020 would have been even worse for the party than one that ends in June (pre-supposing he will resign in the face of a result that makes 1983 look good). No, this election is not about killing off Labour, it’s about wresting control of the Conservative Party back from the hard-Brexit fringe.
The hard-Brexit fringe – which was a very marginal element of the Conservative Party during the 1990s and noughties – has found itself able to call many of the shots in the permissive environment of a very small Parliamentary majority. And whilst the Prime Minister undoubtedly does now carry some personal loss of political capital having campaigned for remain and reversed, and having ruled out an early general election and reversed, she is right to think that having a militant hard-Brexit wing to her Parliamentary party is going to cause her substantial problems when she has to compromise on freedom of movement, the role of the European Court of Justice and membership of the common market, as she will have to do even if it is just in the transitional phase.
A large Parliamentary majority of over 75 will provide the Prime Minister with the sort of wriggle room she needs to make the compromises she will need to make. This is sensible politics, albeit very opportunistic politics.
So, from the vantage point of this early in the campaign my trip to the betting shop would look like this:
The Conservatives to have a majority of over 110 seats.
The Labour PLP to be reduced to 170 seats, but it could be worse.
The Liberal Democrats to come back to 30 seats (or thereabouts). And if this were to be correct this would make them the main beneficiary of this election.
And Brexit will still mean Brexit, but not quite the virulent strain of Brexit that has been bandied around more recently.
Of course, the wildcards in this election can be found in several places: will foreign powers seek to impact on the election in the way that it has been alleged was the case in the EU referendum, the US Presidential campaign and the current French Presidential campaign? Will the investigations into election malpractice in the 2015 General Election result in prosecutions? Or will events in the Middle East, Turkey or the Korean peninsula overtake the parochial concerns of a British election?
This looks like the safest calculation a British Prime Minister will have ever had to make, but elections are strange things and the voting public are volatile.