Election 2017

An Idiot's Guide to the Surprise UK Election

Charting a course through the confused panic.

by Yohann Koshy
Apr 18 2017, 4:30pm

There is going to be another election. If you count the upcoming regional elections on the May 4, and the EU referendum, it will be the fourth time in two years that British voters will have gone to the polls.

In a short statement made at the prime minister's office, after an hour of speculation that sent political journalists into meltdown, Theresa May said this morning that there will be an election on June 8.

May had emphatically denied that there would be a general election before 2020 several times since she assumed the premiership before completely changing her mind. The "political game playing" of the opposition over Brexit has meant she has "only recently and reluctantly" come to the conclusion that a general election is needed.

So what's going on? Hard to say, really, but below is an attempt to put you in the picture to some extent.

Why Now?

Firstly, the Conservatives seem to have a pretty firm electoral lead over Labor, according to recent polls. A YouGov poll from over the weekend put conservatives at 44 percent to Labor's 23 percent, with 50 percent of the sample choosing Theresa May as the best prime minister over Jeremy Corbyn's 14 percent. She wants to solidify this balance now, before Brexit starts going horribly awry.

Secondly, she needs a renewed mandate for the government's Brexit strategy. Despite the endless incantations of "Brexit Means Brexit," the past few months of to-and-fro between Brussels and London has shown it's not that simple. Although calling a general election won't make the uncertainties disappear, it will provide the government with a mandate for whatever form its version of Brexit finally takes. As May said, quite frankly, in her statement, "Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents, and chancellors of the European Union."

As the Guardian has observed, there's another reason why it would be in the government and Conservative Party interest to call a general election now: The Crown Prosecution Service is "due to make a decision quite soon about whether to charge conservatives" in relation to alleged electoral fraud in the 2015 general election. Calling a new election would eliminate the need for politically damaging by-elections. (Although, this would count as "political game playing," which I'm sure the prime minister wouldn't engage in herself.)

What Will May Get Out of It?

Although many politicians and journalists have lamented the government's apparent "lack of opposition" these past few months, the prime minister cited the incessant chorus of disapproval from the opposition parties as the main reason for calling this election:

"In recent weeks, Labor has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain's membership of the European Union... If we do not hold a general election now, their political game playing will continue."

A few weeks ago, Labor published six conditions that the Brexit deal has to meet—which included delivering a free trade agreement that provides the "exact same benefits" as membership of the single market. It said it would consider voting against the package May returns with from Brussels if any of the conditions weren't met. It was a smart move, but a general election could take the wind out of Labor's sails. If it delivers a larger majority for conservatives, May will be able to silence further criticism—for a while, at least.

But Hang On. Is She Allowed to Do This?

One of the reasons a few commentators thought May was unlikely to call a general election before 2020—aside from her repeated, confident assertions that she wouldn't—was because David Cameron's government passed a "Fixed Term Parliament Act" in 2011, meaning a demarcated five-year term for every government. But if government can get more than two-thirds of the House of Commons to vote for it, it can call a snap election. This would mean 434 of 650 members of Parliament voting for an election. Conservatives currently have 330 seats. Today, Labor said it would back an election, so it looks like it's happening.

What Will Happen in These Eight Weeks?

I don't know. Does anyone? With the UK Independence Party in disarray and its MPs migrating to conservative ideals—which partly explains the recent surge popularity for May—and being led by the universally distrusted Paul Nuttall, they're unlikely to gain much traction during the next month of campaigning. Of course, that won't stop Nigel Farage getting invited on to every debate panel and newsroom.

As for Labor, it's likely it'll see a sudden surge in recently "passive" members turning up at its next local Labor meeting to start door-stopping and canvassing; with more than 500,000 members, it has a serious reserve army of labor to exploit over the next few weeks. Look forward to a Momentum activist knocking on your door when you're trying to make a pot of noodles.

One interesting question, raised by Corbyn's former spokesperson, will be whether May agrees to participate in televised debates. A relatively recent invention (it was first used in the 2010 election), they've proved to be pretty useful in throwing up a dark horse. Remember Cleggmania? Remember how Corbyn took everyone by surprise during Labor leadership debates? Don't rule out the dead-eyed resolve of May coming across quite badly compared to JC getting all indignant about the NHS, grammar schools, and so on.

What Does This Mean for Labor?

The prime minister knows too well that this is likely to pour even more fuel over Labor's fires. Already one right-wing Labor MP who's been a consistent critic of Corbyn, Tom Blenkinsop, has announced he won't be standing for reelection, prompting the Sun to exclaim, "Labor Quitting Already." Another un-named Labor source has said that the "silver lining" of the general election will be getting "shot of Corbyn earlier." With the election at such short notice, it's unlikely the Parliamentary Labor Party will try to oust its leader again before June 8. However, the long-standing divisions within the Labor Party—among the membership who would probably vote for him again were there another leadership election, the generally sympathetic unions, and the hostile PLP—won't be going anywhere soon.

A Liberal Democrat Revival?

As for the Lib Dems, they'll likely be using this election to mobilize a section of the 48 percent who are still determined to make Brexit go away. Their leader, Tim Farron, has made it clear in a statement that the Lib Dems will be running on a platform of keeping "Britain in the single market."

What Does This Mean for Brexit?

Many of the problems the European Commission has had so far with Britain's delusional posturing won't be assuaged by having a general election. In fact, the internal divisions between the Conservative Party over what Brexit should look like might only be intensified if it returns on June 9 with a larger majority. The general election will also mean there'll be less time to engage in the actual Brexit negotiations; the two-year countdown began last month when Article 50— which basically gives EU members the right to quit—was triggered.

What Will Happen to Scotland?

The prime minister is hoping to return a conservative supermajority—and we know how much Scotland loves conservatives.

If May is successful, it'll basically mean giving a green light to the Scottish National Party to get on with a new independence referendum. They'll be able to point to a conservative-riddled England committed to a Hard Brexit and contrast it with a Scotland that wants to hold onto the EU, at most, or single market membership, at the least. The divisions between Holyrood and Westminster will have never been clearer.

Will this be the final general election covering the United Kingdom as we know it?

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