This time a couple of weeks ago, the Westminster village was full of rumour and speculation concerning debates supposedly happening about whether the Prime Minister should go to the country before the date stipulated on the Fixed Terms Act. William Hague then penned a piece calling for an early election, whilst BBC Scotland’s num… ah, sorry, ‘flagship current affairs phone in’ show “Call Kaye” debated the issue. After the week May had last week, it was somewhat surprising to see the issue crop up in yesterday’s Sunday Politics show. By now, you’ll have guessed that there’s something of a roadblock to this plan.
|The closest precedent to the predicament May is in - |
Harold MacMillan after his General Election win, October 1959
The Fixed Terms Act didn’t just give the UK the concept of fixed terms for Westminster elections (even if there’s some debate over whether it should have been 5 year terms) but also changed the terms of any future vote of no confidence. This means that a simple +1 majority no longer counts as a vote of no confidence and therefore makes it more difficult for May to engineer a vote. For May this would be a pity as I’d suspect that if she wanted a big stonking Commons majority then the optimum time for getting that will be the next 6 or so months. If she’s living off the mandate won by Cameron when the bells ring in 2018, then the chances of a big majority start to erode.
Having said that, I’m not sure an election this year figures largely in May’s plans anyway. By the looks of things, May’s timetable will be full until the divorce from the EU is completed. The sending of the letter triggering Article 50 will in effect mean no early election and for that matter no second Independence referendum until divorce with the EU has been finalised. I would think that if May does want an early election, then the earliest she will go for will be spring 2019 with an election campaign centred on the supposed “Great Repeal Bill” and the rumoured scrapping of ECHR – a much better ‘material change’ than the European Referendum result is proving to be surely. Other than that temptation, I’d think she’d stick with the date stipulated in the Fixed Terms Act, namely May 7 2020.
We might be in uncharted territory, however May’s predicament is not entirely without precedent. In the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, Anthony Eden resigned 19 months into his only term as PM. His successor, Harold MacMillan (above), did not seek a fresh mandate straight away waiting until the autumn of 1959, 2 and a half years into his premiership, before going to the country. MacMillan won on the famous “You’ve Never Had It So Good” slogan, winning the Conservative’s first post war landslide election win with a majority of 100.
It is Brexit then, which is driving May’s timetable, rather than the Fixed Terms Act. However both of those situations have deprived us of the parlour game once beloved of political hacks – name the election date. Harold Wilson was a master of picking election dates, with the exception of picking the date of his third election as Labour leader. Rather than wait until the autumn, Wilson chose to go to the country in June 1970 and lost to Heath. When Heath decided to go to the country, it was on a ‘Who governs’ slogan… and stumbled into a hung parliament in February 1974. That election called in the winter of 1974 was the last truly ‘snap’ election as every election since the following October election has been called at 4 year intervals at least. There is a school of thought that had Cameron not set up the Fixed Terms Act (as part of the coalition deal with the Lib Dems), he possibly could have called another, snap, election at some point in 2011 or 2012.
For all the talk about a snap election, it is surprising how little the Fixed term Act has entered people’s calculations. This has removed the temptation of a ‘snap’ election for May, though the divorce proceedings with the EU are probably the main reason we can rule out snap elections in May, June or September this year. Thanks to May’s timetable – which does not involve a Scottish Independence referendum either – then the earliest that Theresa May will be going to the country will be late spring 2019. I fully expect May to go to the country on the Fixed Term stipulated date, and not receive the huge majority that the polls think she’d get if she’d got an election this year.