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We Asked an Expert If Theresa May Will Call a Snap General Election

And who would win if she did.

by Tess Reidy
02 August 2016, 12:00am

Theresa May on Andrew Marr. (Screengrab via the BBC)

When Gordon Brown lost the 2010 election, everyone said he'd fucked himself because he was too nervous to call a vote three years earlier when he was still riding high in the polls. Now, Theresa May is in a similar position, and like Brown, she has said it isn't going to happen.

But is she a woman of her word? There's already immense speculation about whether or not she'll go for it – perhaps later this year, maybe next. Why? Because some say this could be her chance to bury Labour and give the Tories a bigger majority. The Conservatives are currently 12 percent ahead in the polls and May is in her honeymoon period. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has managed to deteriorate even further since her taking office. In some ways, she couldn't be in more favourable circumstances.

However, some Conservatives fear that the government would be punished by voters for Brexit, and London Tories are worried following Sadiq Khan's victory. Also, MPs are generally pretty exhausted after the last general election and referendums. Nevertheless, the pressure is on her to make a call. But will she do it?

I spoke to Andrew Blick, lecturer in Politics and Contemporary History at King's College London, to get to grips with what is going on.

VICE: Hi Andrew. How likely is it that May will call a snap election?
Andrew: If she's going to do it, announcing it at the Tory Party conference in September would be a good time. The Conservative conference comes last, so Labour will likely have sorted out their issues and she'll know, for instance, if Corbyn's staying. If he's been beaten she may not want to call one. If he isn't beaten it will be quite tempting to call one then.

How hard is it to call a snap election?
Procedurally, it's slightly more difficult post-2011 after the fixed-term Parliaments Act was introduced by the Coalition, saying that the parliament would run for the full five years unless one of two conditions are met. The first is that 66 percent of all MPs have to vote for an early general election. Obviously, to do that you'd have to get at least one of the opposition parties on board, which could be quite difficult. The other way of doing it, which is the one she might well have to take if Labour don't play ball, is passing a motion saying this house has no confidence in the government. It would look on the surface slightly odd, but there's nothing strictly to stop them doing that.

How did it used to happen?
In ordinary circumstances in the past, the Prime Minister would have gone to the Queen and asked for a dissolution of the government and, generally, you'd get it. There was an unspoken understanding that if you abused this right you might possibly be refused – for instance, if you asked very soon after a general election when there was no real need.

So they've made the Queen redundant?
Yes, it's taken her powers away!

Do you think May would be wise to call one soon?
She initially said she wasn't going to do it, so if she does it might look a bit opportunistic, that she is blatantly exploiting the difficulties of the Labour Party when the country has other problems to think about. On the other hand, the temptation must be enormous; Labour's not in a serious position to mount an election campaign at the moment.

Might that get resolved once the leadership election is over?
If Corbyn stays there's going to be problems, but if the party jettison him there's still going to be divisions. If he did lose it probably wouldn't be by a big majority, so there would be issues in the grassroots of the party and they wouldn't be in great shape.

So when would be a good time for the Tories to go for it?
There are boundary changes coming up and a reduction in the number of total seats. This is generally considered to be good for the Tories, so there's something to be said for May hanging on longer until they go through in 2018. On the other hand, in favour of calling one is that she hasn't got a very big majority in parliament and she hasn't got her own personal mandate.

What about pressures from within her own party?
The Conservatives have patched over their difference regarding Europe for the time being, but there are still issues. Even though they are all agreeing Brexit has got to happen, they're not agreeing what will happen in reality. Those that are Brexit-lite, such as May, think that we can basically minimise all the changes; and then the more fundamentalist end of the spectrum are saying no, we want to hold out for total control of our immigration policy, for instance. Those divisions may resurface and she might want to be going into that kind of argument having won her own majority so that she can withstand rebellions in her own party and claim to have a clear mandate. Otherwise, she has to wait until 2020, which is quite a long while, and by that time we could be out of the EU [we are due to be gone by early 2019] or still in the middle of long negotiations, which is not ideal. She actually might be better to call a general election before she starts the horrific negotiations.

May is riding high in the polls at the moment – is there always a honeymoon period when we get a new prime minister?
Yes, even Gordon Brown had one, the so-called "Brown bounce". May might look at Brown's lift in the polls in 2007 when he thought about calling a snap election. Like her, he was quite cautious about a general election and thought that he could have one and lose and become one of the shortest serving prime ministers ever, and no one wants to be that. He didn't call it and was accused of bottling it, and then the credit crunch came and he never really recovered. May could look at that and think she doesn't want to make the same mistake that he made.

Would Labour definitely lose if she did call one?
My guess is that the Tories would certainly increase their majority, no question about that. Although, if she leaves it, Corbyn may carry on until 2020, by which time Labour could be in an even worse position. So in some ways, a quick election might not be quite as bad for the Labour Party. Even though there will be a heavy defeat, it could mean Corbyn leaving sooner.

Why, then, are some people on the left calling for a snap election?
This always happens when a new unelected prime minister comes in. Opponents challenge the legitimacy of them – that's standard. Even when it's the last thing on earth they want, they feel obliged to do it. The don't want to be seen to be scared of a general election; even Cameron called for Gordon Brown to have one.

How hard is it for the opposition to force one?
It's impossible for the opposition to force one. At the very least you need a majority, and if they had majority in the House of Commons they wouldn't be in opposition. The governing party has to be on board, so no, they can't force it; they can wait for five years and they have one anyway.

If May called a snap general election would she be able to scrap parts of Cameron's 2015 manifesto she didn't like?
By winning an election she can have her own manifesto and, exactly, if there are things in Cameron's she doesn't like then she can dump them. At the moment the extent to which she is really bound by the existing manifesto is an interesting question; they've already dropped fiscal targets post leaving the EU. Clearly it's not the absolute be all and end all.

With two big votes in the space of a year, as well as leadership and mayoral elections, is there such a thing as voter fatigue?
Good question. Will they have had enough? Who knows – perhaps people are in the habit of voting and do it more, but I wouldn't be surprised if it looked like a forgone conclusion, so election turnout could be low. Labour voters would be demotivated and think they're going to lose anyway, and the Conservatives might be disinclined to vote, thinking the Tories are going to win anyway. That could have downward pressure on turnout. But actually going and voting – how difficult is it? It takes 15 minutes. I'm never fully convinced about voter fatigue. It's no more difficult than going out down the shops, and people do that every day.

What do you think – will she call one? Yes or no?
I'd be surprised if she does, but there may be something I don't know about. I think she'll wait until 2020.

Thanks, Andrew!

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