The lesson of Gordon Brown is clear: don’t even hint at an early election unless you’re totally resolved on it, because backtracking makes you look frightened and weak.
So we shouldn’t expect Downing Street to be thinking aloud on the topic. But Theresa May’s actions since getting the keys to Number 10 make it very difficult to see how she plans to govern until 2020 without one.
Yesterday, my colleague Mark Wallace highlighted the fact that The Times had opened fire on her new Government in an editorial.
It’s criticisms were quite widespread, encompassing both grammar schools and the Prime Minister’s lack of zeal for authoritarian public health policies, for which the paper is something of a cheerleader. But beyond individual policies one part stands out:
‘Political honeymoons are earned through party or national election victories. So far Mrs May has won neither, unlike her predecessor. She seems intent even so on jettisoning some of his better policies while sticking to his worst…A fondness for decision-making that ignores the evidence instead of paying close attention to it is only making matters worse.’
Nor is this the only time when May’s lack of an election win will be cited against her: it was pointed out to me recently that the House of Lords would not be exceeding its conventional constitutional authority by trying to hold up grammar schools as long as it could because the policy was not in the Government’s election manifesto.
All of this is before we consider the looming prospect of a rearguard action by Cameroon maquisards, the leadership of whom George Osborne is openly auditioning for in the Sun. The Prime Minister’s bold clear out of the Cabinet means that this group could negate the Government’s majority without too much difficultly.
May clearly has no intention of simply providing continuity for somebody else’s programme, and this may be no bad thing. After all, the Cameron/Osborne project was dreamed up in the mid-2000s, in political circumstances vastly different from today’s.
With new research finding that more than 50 per cent of the electorate hold right-of-centre political views, there’s a strong case to be made that ‘Mayism’ represents a shift in Conservative thinking towards the new centre. In contrast, the “liberal, mainstream majority” talked up by the former Chancellor could well be that of 2005.
Given the state that Labour is in, the Conservatives may have to stay in power for a long time if the dire prospect of a Labour-led coalition of the defeated lurching into office, with the sole intention of introducing a chaotic new voting system, is to be averted.
Doing so will require the tricky feat of renewal, whilst in office, of both personnel and policy. Again, May’s decisions since winning the leadership could be seen as recognition of this fact.
But her opponents can and will latch on to her lack of a mandate for any bold new vision, not least because of the unsatisfactory manner (not of her making) by which she won the Conservative leadership. They will also exploit the Government’s small majority in the Commons and it’s weakness in the Lords.
So it’s difficult to reconcile the Prime Minister’s evident ambitions with the realities of her circumstances. Yet tellingly, it’s not obvious that she’s actually trying to do so.
If May’s ‘purge’ of the Cameroons were not a declaration of intent, the grammar schools decision has a stronger claim to be so. It brings her into conflict not just with the Tory left but, crucially, with a very vocal section of the broader liberal-left establishment.
Should these forces combine to stop her, as it seems they will, we can see how Number 10 might make the case to the voters that alas, the politicking others has forced her to go to the country.
The benefits to the Prime Minister are clear: an opportunity to exploit her honeymoon to secure an electoral smash; a direct mandate for her own policies; and, in all likelihood, a majority sufficient to pull the teeth from the die-hard Cameroon rearguard.
It even provides a plausible way to get around the challenges posed by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act: can Labour and the Liberal Democrats justify wholesale opposition to the Government in the Lords if they shrink from an opportunity to contest a general election?
Of course, there are clear downsides too, not least of which is fighting an election on the current boundaries, which favour Labour. It also only extends the Government’s lifespan by at most a couple of years, compared to an election in 2018 or later (although it would afford the opportunity to dismantle the FPTP before the next one).
But spending four years playing defensively on domestic policy between now and the scheduled election in 2020, and risking her premiership being entirely defined by Brexit, is clearly not on May’s agenda, and charting a bold new course in present circumstances may not be possible.