Tuesday, 18 April 2017

#GE2017 - An Opportune Moment and the Death Knell of Fixed Term Parliaments

And so, it begins. An early General Election has been called by the Prime Minister, and Parliament will not block it. The country will go to the polls in an Election which will be dominated by what kind of Brexit we want, and what kind of post-Brexit Britain we want to be.

Many are shocked, "stunned", but this decision was not surprising. Inner-circles have been talking about the strong possibility (and in recent weeks – probability) for a long while. The signs were fairly obvious – for instance, the Conservatives have been raising money and selecting candidates and appointing staff for the past few months, far earlier than they ever would have done for a 2020 contest.

The only real surprise is that it was not after May 4th, which some of us (those who always believed the election was coming this year) thought was going to be May’s final litmus test on whether or not to call a nationwide vote. Even then, others were thinking May could be calling it for as early as May 4th itself.

Despite the amazement of many commentators and pundits, calling this election was both logical from a tactical perspective and confirms the absolute and unquestionable authority of the Prime Minister in British politics (which many had thought reduced or impeded by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and other constitutional arrangements – or lack of).

Strategically, it is absolutely no coincidence that the day after the Conservatives smash through the 20-point lead barrier, a General Election is called. If the election was held today, on some estimates the Conservatives would reach 400 seats. Labour are weak, and May is strong. The economy looks good (minus the plummeting pound), and the public still back Brexit.

But she is also smart enough to know that this would have not likely lasted too long. Or at least that it would have been foolish to presume that the state of play as it exists now would be the same in 2020. Politics moves fast, and with recent results in mind, nowadays we need to be expecting the unexpected. Perhaps a change of Labour leader, or more likely a big shift in public opinion towards Brexit and the negotiations could have been on the horizon.

There is clearly a large amount of unease and uncertainty surrounding the public's perspective of the Brexit negotiations, polls suggest that they are setting high expectations, and clearly are not in favour of May's plan to leave the EU without a deal in place. There was always the danger that once people realised that they would have to queue at customs to get into France, or pay extortionate roaming fees to text relatives in Spain, that there would be a quick shift against the government’s position on Brexit. 

Better to call an election now, and use a full 5 years to negotiate and ride over the Brexit storm, than to be facing a General Election within months of formally exiting. It makes sense.

An early General Election to stamp authority, silence dissenters, and gain a clear command of the Commons also appeals directly to Theresa May’s style. She has always made use of a very top-down, authoritarian line of management. Whether it be in the Home Office or in Number 10. Dissent within her own ranks and threat to overturn the final Brexit deal by opposition parties have never sat well with her. The need to negotiate and concede, governing with a slim majority, is just not May’s way of doing things. What she wants (and needs) is a clear, strong, majority in the House of Commons.

Finally, the amount of hype surrounding the Fixed Term Parliament Act and its ability to restrain May’s decision to call an early General Election among some commentators has been shown to be completely overblown. 

As a colleague and friend put it, the Act might have provided some additional “friction”, but any suggestions that it could seriously get in the way of an early General Election were always completely nonsensical. Despite what some were saying, this was always going to be easy.

The British Prime Minister, so long as they are the head of both the British executive (Cabinet) and legislative (the Commons) will always be able to call elections as and when they like. Yes, formally speaking May has not ‘called’ and election, and Parliament officially have to vote on it, but this is the equivalent of nit picking and rubber stamping. It is all moot, and that is all the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has ever been.

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