Even before her accession to Prime Minister, a question dogged Theresa May: would she call an early general election? Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act passed under the coalition government, the Prime Minister cannot call an election on a whim; instead, they must get two-thirds of the House of Commons to accept a motion for an early election. Otherwise, this act sets the date for the next election as 2020. The Prime Minister has been asked several times whether she will call an election, and each time has ruled it out. She seems, then, determined to stay on without going to the country before 2020.
Unlike in American elections, Britain votes for a party, not a person. The individual seats are counted and – usually – the party with the majority of seats forms the government, with the leader of that party installed as Prime Minister. When David Cameron resigned, the Conservative Party still had the majority in the Commons, and so they were able to continue as the government.
Critics have argued that she has not been directly elected, and so has no mandate to govern. Legally, however, there was no problem with Theresa May taking over as Prime Minister. She was elected on the same manifesto that the rest of the Conservatives stood on, and governs with the same mandate as David Cameron. However, her actions since taking office have given the democratic argument more merit. In the last few months, we have seen not a continuation of Cameron’s government but a brand new one.
On her first day as Prime Minister, she began a Cabinet reshuffle. George Osborne, Cameron’s closest ally and chief strategist, was out immediately. So was Oliver Letwin,
Cameron’s policy chief, and several more Cameron and Osborne allies, including Michael Gove. This group was referred to as the ‘Notting Hill set’, so named for them all having lived in Notting Hill in London. This quick purge of the Cameron-Osborne group made clear that May had her own ideas and direction for government, rather than the intention to follow the established order. Economic policy, too, has changed, with the new Chancellor Phillip Hammond signalling a ‘fiscal reset’ by replacing austerity with increased public spending, as well as rebalancing Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policy to instead benefit the whole country.
Furthermore, May has come out with expansive education plans, most explosively proposing the opening of new grammar schools. Regardless of whether these plans will be effective boosters for social mobility, as she says, there is one inescapable issue for the Prime Minister: these plans were not in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto.
Having new policies outside the manifesto poses two problems. First, the government has a slim majority of only 12. This gives huge power to Tory backbenchers to disrupt government plans. In the 1990s, Prime Minister John Major had a majority of 21, but was repeatedly thwarted by a group of ‘whipless rebels’ that refused to support the pro-EU moves by the government.
Given that Labour, the SNP, and the Liberal Democrats are entirely opposed to new grammar schools, the government would have to get almost every single Tory MP on side to make sure the proposals pass. However, numerous backbenchers have already expressed their doubts over the plans, including high-profile MPs like the former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, and the now departed David Cameron. This makes its passage through the House of Commons far from a certainty.
If the vote did pass, it would then go to the House of Lords. The Conservative Party does not have a majority in the Lords and the Lords have no issue with voting down a bill that was not included in the government’s manifesto. This gives the bill a year’s wait before it can be passed by bypassing the House of Lords. An extra year of waiting is never what a government wants.
we have seen not a continuation of Cameron’s government but a brand new one
Having such a small majority will restrict a Prime Minister with her own new, radical agenda. This makes an election attractive, especially given the current state of the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn has the worst personal ratings of a Labour opposition leader in their first year, and has overseen their worst local election results since the 1980s. With the addition of 80% of Labour MPs lacking faith in Corbyn, an election now would very likely secure a strong majority and mandate for Theresa May to implement her goals.
So why doesn’t she? There is one main reason. The Brexit vote resulted in one of the biggest shake-ups of the status quo in British history, and Britain’s place in the world is uncertain while plans are drawn up and negotiations prepared for. The process of extracting ourselves from the EU will take several years – potentially, well over a decade. Theresa May has made clear that she believes that another election will simply further destabilise the country at a time when it needs that the least.
In terms of an early election, Theresa May poses an interesting juxtaposition. She reasons that we’re only one year in to a Conservative government while announcing policies that were not in the Conservative manifesto. She invokes stability while proposing fractious policies with a party not fully behind her. It is difficult to say whether we will see an early election. The Prime Minister may well get tired of fighting her own party and see an election as a way of securing her own mandate and giving her a more comfortable majority. This is the prediction of many senior politicians and ex-politicians, some of whom are suggesting an election in Spring 2017.
Jeremy Corbyn has now put the Labour Party on an election footing, and will instruct his MPs to vote for an early election if the government wants one. This puts the ball firmly in Theresa May’s court, and neither option is particularly appealing; will she keep her word and govern with difficulty until 2020, or undermine herself and her desire for stability by calling an early election?bookmark me