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An Early Election - Theresa May's Masterstroke?

18/04/2017 14:42
Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

Theresa May has called what may prove to be the most bountiful snap election since Harold Wilson went to the country in 1966. With the polls suggesting leads in excess of 20 percentage points for the Conservatives, June's election may be the first Tory landslide win for 30 years. And what's more, Jeremy Corbyn has committed to voting with the Prime Minister, making a snap election certain. Like it or not, an election in 2017 is a political fact, and one which will doubtless have serious implications for the Conservatives, and of course, Jeremy Corbyn's seemingly beleaguered Labour Party.

If the polls are right - or even nearly right - Theresa May can expect a win comparable only in its decisiveness to those scored by Margaret Thatcher in 1983 and 1987, and those achieved by Tony Blair at the zenith of New Labour in 1997 and 2001. Moreover, the Labour Party - already over 100 seats behind the Conservatives - could be relegated to rump party status, ousted from former fiefdoms in non-metropolitan England. This will be the first General Election - and quite possibly the last - fought with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.

For the Conservatives, this would cement their position in government and in the country, exploiting an Opposition that has been haemorrhaging MPs and members, and potentially locking Labour out of power for many more years to come. By going to the country now, with historic highs in opinion polls, instead of waiting until the UK is busily engaged in Brexit negotiations, the Conservatives will extend their period in office until 2022, theoretically to allow Brexit aftershocks to decline in their detrimental political impact, and allowing more time for the minutiae of post-Brexit wrangling in Brussels. All this amounts to what the Prime Minister will surely see as necessary 'breathing space' post-2019.

The Labour Party's apparent anaemia will be tested (quite possibly to destruction) in this contest. Even in 1983 the Labour Party could count on the support of vast tranches of Scotland, Wales, the industrial Midlands, and the North. However, if recent political events are anything to go by, then this link between the vanguard of the Labour Party and the white working-class demographics of these traditional sinews of strength, may be severed. With the Labour leadership firmly in support of Remain, the issue of Brexit may be the point of no return for populations which have plumped for Labour since time immemorial.

However, the Conservatives are not the only party who could gain from this election, following as it does after the divisive Brexit referendum. The Liberal Democrats, buoyed up by the strides made in Witney and Richmond Park, may pitch themselves as the only credible alternative to what they see as a 'Brexit government'. Still, leaps from 7% in the polls to 10% are hardly gargantuan, and there is little to suggest Tim Farron can replicate the successes of the 2000s, and 'Cleggmania'. All depends on the resilience of the Remain-voting Tory-supporting demographics, which helped to deliver what will be remembered as a seismic win, in Richmond.

But I can't help wondering whether this is wise, given the importance of Brexit negotiations (and success in those negotiations) to the future of our country. An election, expensive as it will be, and time-consuming, can surely only be an unwelcome state of affairs at this stage. As Britain should be planning for the end of its 40-year membership of the European Union, the country is instead engaged in the third critical UK-wide vote (after the 2015 election and the EU referendum) in as many years.

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