Shortly before Theresa May was elected as the new Conservative leader, we said that the new Prime Minister should call an early general election. May swiftly made it clear that she doesn’t want one, and we promptly stopped our call in its tracks – because she has set out her stall as a woman of her word, and breaking faith with her view would be a clear breach of it.
Now that the conference season is over and Parliament has returned, however, it has become clear that an pre-2020 poll can’t be ruled out. The Government has a formal majority of 16. On the one hand, it is larger in practice, because May has the backing in practice of the DUP. On the other, every Conservative Government in recent memory has seen at least 20 members of the Parliamentary Party at loggerheads with the leadership.
The reasons are sometimes personal and sometimes political – Britain’s place in Europe being the usual causus belli. For Bill Cash, Peter Bone and Bernard Jenkin now read Anna Soubry, Nick Herbert and Nicky Morgan. And the seismic nature of Brexit simply raises the stakes, although reports this morning of rows between Philip Hammond and other Cabinet members illustrate less a crisis than how departments’ positions can be a drag on clear aims. In this instance, the Treasury is bound to be sympathetic to higher immigration, because it is an easy means of boosting growth – and many employers have got used to relying on it at the lower-paid end of the scale. But matters might reach a point at which although Brexit is not blocked, orderly government becomes impossible, and rebellions in the Commons and resistance on the Lords combine to leave May unable to get key legislation through.
Above all, senior Tories are bound continuously to be tempted by the sheer unelectability of Jeremy Corbyn. The Fixed Terms Parliament Act makes engineering an election very difficult, but not actually impossible. The Government could slap down a motion of no confidence in itself. Admittedly, this would be a very odd thing to do and there is no real precedent for it.
None the less, it would be hard for Labour not to back a motion of no confidence in the Conservatives. Corbyn could only wriggle out of it by effectively conceded that he would be trounced in a poll. May might reach a point where she could argue, with some conviction, that she didn’t want an election but one has been forced on her, since her Government can’t get its business. Tory MPs in marginals would be nervous, but there you go.