Politically, the United Kingdom is a very different place than it was just six short weeks ago. The nation has spoken and as a result we’re on the way out of Europe, setting off a chain of events that few would have predicted back at the beginning of June.
The biggest immediate change (apart from the decision to leave Europe, which most now appreciate will take a matter of years rather than months) has taken place right at the top. We’ve got a new Prime Minister: Theresa May is now in charge of a majority Conservative government and has made a headline-grabbing start by dramatically hiring and firing several Cabinet ministers.
Whilst the Tories have acted decisively, Labour, the Green Party and UKIP are still in the process of choosing leaders of their own, who could all potentially be in place before we return to University in the autumn. In what many consider to be the most likely scenario, Parliament will resume with May’s Government at the helm and Labour sitting opposite, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Due to the Fixed-term Parliament Acts, this would continue to be the case until 2020.
Some people argue, however, that all of the recent upheaval means that this simply can’t be allowed to happen and we need to have a national vote before then. The media have speculated than an early election could either be held in November this year or, in an option that many see as more likely, next spring.
We need to have an early election …
Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg wrote a column in the immediate aftermath of ‘Brexit’, saying that whilst the referendum resulted a decision to leave the EU, the current regime enjoys “no mandate as to how this should be done”. He made a suggestion which I see as quite reasonable: that all political parties should be given a chance set out their plans for Britain’s decoupling from the Union.
The next step in Clegg’s plan would be a General Election to decide on who should be tasked with forming a Government to negotiate Brexit, before Article 50 (which would formally begin the exit process) could be triggered, or otherwise. It’s worth considering that the Lib Dems – Clegg’s party – have also decided that they would contest any such election on an unashamedly pro-European, anti-Brexit platform.
Lots of people have pointed out how absurd it is that our new Prime Minister has been chosen by Conservative Party members and MPs, rather than the general public. Throughout the short-lived Tory leadership contest, there was much talk of ‘going to the country’ for a mandate to rule. Such whispers have been amplified due to the magnitude of the task facing the Government, i.e. negotiating a potential Brexit deal.
Theresa May’s own words to Gordon Brown in the wake of Tony Blair’s resignation – she told the new Prime Minister that he was “running scared” of an early election – have also come back to haunt her. The odds would be heavily in May’s favour in the event of such a vote, and refusal to heed calls from rivals in a similar vein to her own criticisms of Brown could leave her open to accusations of hypocrisy.
Some have suggested that, in exceptional circumstances, the Fixed-term Parliament Act could be repealed. This decision would mean that the Prime Minister could call for an early election before the standard five-year period is up. If Theresa May wanted to, many pundits speculate that the UK’s decision to leave the EU could be seen as the sort of event which would allow this to take place. Polls, thanks to the boost which usually follows a change in leadership, indicate that she would be likely to increase her Party’s Parliamentary majority if a vote were to be called in this way.
Following September’s result, whoever is the Leader of the Labour Party could decide to make the case for an early election on the basis that George Osborne reneged on a key manifesto commitment in the wake of Brexit. Many said that the Conservatives won in 2015 in part due to their pledge to reduce the nation’s deficit. Earlier this month, the former Chancellor announced that reaching a budget surplus by 2020 would no longer be possible. Osborne’s U-turn could allow the Opposition to call for the Government’s mandate to be put to the test.
Let’s wait until 2020 …
The ball is very much in Theresa May’s court, barring a no-confidence vote or a widely-supported motion from Opposition parties calling for an early election. She could call for a snap election as outlined above, but there is a strong argument that in such a time of national turmoil, doing so would result only in further uncertainty. Additional uncertainty, as well as being seen as bad news by foreign investors, is probably just about the last thing lots of people in the UK feel they need right now!
Our new Prime Minister was the overwhelming choice of so many Conservative MPs as she was seen as a safe pair of hands to guide the nation through difficult waters. Plenty of politicians would suggest that May should be given time to show what her regime is all about rather than rushing straight into an election only months after her promotion. The public’s weariness of drawn out political campaigns (as a result of a Scottish Independence Referendum, General Election and EU Referendum within the past three years) is another factor which may reduce the chances of an early vote.
A Labour MP called John Trickett described Theresa May’s rise to the office of Prime Minister as a “coronation”, arguing that it’s vital that the UK has a democratically-elected leader. Given Labour’s current plight, many of his colleagues would say that his subsequent call for an early election are matched only in their outlandishness by Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion yesterday that “we can do it” when asked whether his Party could win a snap election.
With the Labour Party reported this week to be trailing the Conservatives by between 12 and 16 percentage points, research suggest that the current Opposition would instead be on course to lose many seats. Many Labour Party members would pragmatically concede that an election before the end of the year would be more likely to result in an increased Tory government than a regime change.
The decision taken on the 23rd June has resulted in discussions amongst left-wing journalists and politicians about the potential formation of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ as a means of defeating the Conservatives at a General Election. Such a group would be united by shared goals of ending austerity and reforming the UK’s voting system. Voting pacts in individual constituencies would, in theory, result in a coalition government.
Plans for an alliance of any sort are at an early stage and are currently opposed by both candidates in the Labour leadership contest. Advocates for a Progressive Alliance may therefore see themselves as better placed to win an election in four years’ time.
The notion that the SNP’s number of MPs would be unlikely to change, combined with the slim chance of any left-wing party winning an outright majority, means that several Opposition parties would be unlikely to back a vote in favour of an early election against Theresa May’s wishes. A two-thirds majority in the House of Commons would be required before a snap election could be called in this way: a quorum which could not be reached without cross-party support.
– By Liam David Hopley