Tories need to beware temptation of early election

by Bill Emmott | 24.10.2016

If you take national opinion polls at face value, Theresa May’s calculations about whether to hold an early general election are simple: with the Conservatives 18 points ahead of Labour in IPSOS-Mori’s latest poll, the highest lead for any party in government since 2002, she should go for it, as soon as possible.

Last week’s by-elections, however, in the seats vacated humiliatingly by David Cameron and tragically by Jo Cox, suggest that politics could prove more volatile than the national polls suggest.

If Mrs May wants to cut and run so as to strengthen her authority, the spring would be a good time, given that France’s elections in May anyway preclude any serious progress in Brexit negotiations until the Elysee has a new occupant.

So she could trigger Article 50 in March and ask Parliament to repeal the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act to allow her to go to the polls with a manifesto containing the outlines of her Brexit stance, letting her crush Jeremy Corbyn into the dust just as Margaret Thatcher did to Michael Foot in 1983. She would emerge with the political asset she has in the past seemed to respect most, a mandate.

Repealing the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act should be straightforward, given the Tories’ absolute majority and with a party hungry to run against the most feeble opposition in three decades.

The prime minister might even reckon on chipping away at the Scot Nats’ dominance in Scotland, with the Scottish Tories led by the popular and effective Ruth Davidson. And the shambles at UKIP, whose support has plunged to 6% in the IPSOS-Mori survey, less than half their votes in 2015, will provide further encouragement.

The case looks irresistible. But before cancelling spring holidays, senior Conservatives would do well to think hard about three points.

First, the Liberal Democrats’ vote in Witney. One by-election is not enough on which to base a trend, but the Lib Dems’ success in beating Labour into second place and cutting the Tories’ majority by almost two-thirds was eye-catching.

There is a place, and a big bank of support, for an explicitly pro-Europe party. Labour’s ambiguity on the issue makes the Lib Dems currently the only real candidate, at least in England, if they can rally themselves sufficiently to be convincing. The 48% who voted Remain on June 23rd are up for grabs.

Second, if you go to the polls you have to produce, and thus agree upon, a manifesto. The Conservative Party, loyal to power though its traditions say it is, is deeply divided over the two issues crucial to the Brexit negotiations: immigration and membership of the EU’s single market.

Mrs May will have to decide how soon she wishes to crystallise these divisions and stamp her authority on the feuding camps. Last week’s leaks by all and slap-downs by Number 10, most notably of her chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, imply that the rifts are not only deep but running swiftly out of control.

The need to agree upon manifesto proposals for immigration and the single market could be salutary. But it could also be bloody.

If she does decide to go to the polls, the views it will be most interesting to see take shape will be her own. At the Home Office, she slavishly supported the 2010 and 2015 commitments to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”.

A 2017 manifesto could give her the chance to define immigration controls in a new, and more tenable, way.

Or perhaps she will show she has really believed in “tens of thousands” all along.

Third, and not least, while thinking hard about immigration, she should not forget the Cheshire Cat smile of British politics: Nigel Farage. UKIP may be down, but it is not out, and it is safe to predict that Mr Farage would love another shot at winning a seat in Parliament.

Soften the position on immigration, and Mr Farage’s grin will broaden. Keep it tough, and divisions in the Cabinet will harden.

Come to think of it, a spring general election in Britain could be rather interesting.

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    Edited by Alan Wheatley