While in the moment surprising, Theresa May’s announcement that she would seek permission from Parliament to hold a general election on 8th June was hardly unexpected. Six weeks is a short period to campaign in, and while there may well be a number of surprises along the way, early thoughts and considerations can certainly be shared at this stage.
First, since her ascent to Downing Street in Brexit’s messy aftermath, Theresa May has been dogged by the questions of legitimacy and lacking a mandate to take the UK out of the EU. A very common criticism levelled against Gordon Brown was that rather than seeking a mandate to govern by calling a general election, he simply ruled without one until 2010’s general election. Thus, by calling an early election and circumventing the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, Mrs May will – if successful – have earned a personal mandate to act as Prime Minister.
Furthermore, since 2015, the Conservative Party has not governed on the specific mandate of exiting the EU. Given Brexit’s significance to the national interest and its initial terms’ ambiguity, it is only fair that the British people are able to grant it a stamp of approval, either through a second referendum or general election. Mrs May’s previous steadfast reassurances against calling early elections have seemingly been superseded by greater needs for personal legitimacy and a real mandate for a “hard” Brexit, and should not be viewed as a breakdown of integrity.
However, one must also consider political expediency as a motivating factor for calling these elections. While many are hardly enamoured with the Conservatives for initiating Brexit and overseeing swinging cuts to the NHS and other public services, faith in Labour’s ability to govern is dismal. As of this morning, the Conservatives stood a good twenty points ahead of Labour in the opinion polls, with its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, being particularly poorly regarded.
Uncharismatic and dogmatic, Mr Corbyn’s belief that successive electoral defeats stemming from not being left-wing enough doom Labour to perpetual failure in wooing the centrist swing-voters who decide the outcome of general elections. One of Mrs May’s particular talents is speaking the language of the upwardly mobile, aspirant blue-collar voters who traditionally support Labour. Unfortunately for Mr Corbyn, his own appeal is far more limited, and he will struggle to gain support from established Conservative voters and supporters.
Mr Corbyn has also demonstrated significant inadequacies which can only hamper his ability to hold high office. Rather than taking a strong stand and backing the Remain campaign, Mr Corbyn dithered, preventing Labour from fully campaigning in support of it. Consequently, Labour’s traditional strongholds such as Sunderland decided the referendum’s outcome by voting Leave. More tellingly, the Labour Party took the best part of an hour before issuing any response to Mrs May’s surprise announcement, as if it had taken them by surprise. When Mr Corbyn eventually did release his response, he did not mention Brexit once. Perhaps, one might think, Labour had completely failed to anticipate this development and accordingly prepare contingency responses.
While 100+ seat Conservative majorities and an electoral wipe-out for Labour have both been predicted, neither of these outcomes can be assured. The Conservative’s parliamentary majority stands at just sixteen, almost perpetually holding the government hostage to rebel MPs. Most of these seats were won from Liberal Democrat MPs in 2015, and as Zac Goldsmith’s defeat in Richmond shows, pro-Remain voters may well swing back to the Liberal Democrats. Enough of Labour’s seats are safe to make winning them an uphill battle for Conservative candidates, and a landslide victory is far from certain.
The Liberal Democrats actually stand to win the most from this election. At worst, the Conservatives’ majority will slightly grow, and at best, Labour are fighting for the survival of their political viability. Given their dire performance in 2015 and erosion of Labour’s centre, the Liberal Democrats can position themselves as the sanest and most centrist opposition to a hard Brexit and little-c conservative government. Pro-remain Labour and Conservative seats are most likely to swing Liberal Democrat, but Tim Farron is extremely unlikely to overtake Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition, come 9th June 2017.
While an increased Conservative majority can be predicted with relative confidence, little else is certain. At one point, pollsters put a certain reality TV host and property magnate’s odds of winning the US’ presidential election at just 2%, and Donald J. Trump now sits in the White House. Populism has triumphed in the Brexit election, Italy’s constitutional referendum, and America. Mr Corbyn’s own leftist populism is unlikely to appeal to Britain’s upwardly aspirant swing voters, but never say never. Should he lose, then the margin of defeat will decide his future as Labour’s. Having already demonstrated a ferocious tenacity in retaining the party’s leadership when challenged last summer, a dignified resignation speech, as exemplified by Ed Miliband, would be one of that election’s bigger surprises.