20 April 2017
Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme, Chatham House
It’s also about demonstrating that the prime minister is in control.
Prime Minister Theresa May had to have better reasons for subjecting election-fatigued Brits to their fourth major political contest in three years than just strengthening her hand in negotiations with Brussels.
May put heavy emphasis on the need to ‘prepare for Brexit’ and strengthen the ‘government’s negotiating position in Europe’ when she announced the 8 June snap election on the steps of Number 10.
As one senior Conservative Party official told me afterward: ‘Our view is that we cannot go into the negotiations with the EU divided. We need a good hand and this election is about strengthening that hand.’
However, this strategy has an external and an internal dimension: Outwardly, it is about the power of symbolism — demonstrating to Berlin, Brussels and Paris that the prime minister has a solid mandate, that she leads a unified party, that the country supports her stance on Brexit and might be prepared to walk away from a bad deal.
In this respect, it should be noted that Britain is no longer a nation divided, as it was last June, between the ’52- and 48-percenters’. More recent polls suggest that a large majority of 69 per cent want to proceed with Brexit while only 21 per cent want to overturn the result. Mobilizing voters around the need to present a united front is a logical response.
Internally, an early election is about smoothing the Brexit process in Westminster. Put yourself in May’s shoes: you have a delicate majority of only 17 seats in the House of Commons, the lowest since 1974. Yet with Brexit, you will also have to pass some of the most complex legislation in recent history while three opposition parties and a handful of renegade Conservative MPs work to soften your stance. Simply hoping that things hold together until 2020 is not an enticing prospect. Going to the country to win a new majority of more than 100 will mean a different environment entirely.
Up in the polls
Polling is likely to have played a role in May’s calculation. During the heyday of Tony Blair and New Labour, the Conservative Party was reduced to fewer than 200 seats. The party that once branded itself ‘the natural party of government’ used to wonder aloud whether it would ever again poll above 40 per cent. How times have changed: in the 37 opinion polls that have been conducted since January, the centre-right party has only fallen below the 40 per cent threshold on six occasions. In recent weeks, its leads over the main opposition Labour Party have become striking, surpassing 20 points.
Under Jeremy Corbyn’s dismal leadership, Labour has slumped to 23 per cent in the polls. Were that figure repeated at the election, it would be Labour’s lowest share of the vote since 1918. Forecasts of the number of Labour MPs that will be left vary from 150 to 182, well down on its almost 230 MPs at present. Put it this way — if there is merely a 5 per cent swing from Labour to the Conservative Party, upwards of 40 Labour MPs will lose their seats.
But perhaps the most significant number is 154: if the number of Labour seats falls below that, it will be the party’s lowest number since 1931. Some of Corbyn’s followers dismiss the polls, but there are other signs. At a recent parliamentary by-election, the Conservative Party captured the northern seat of Copeland from Labour, becoming the first governing party since 1878 to make a comparable gain. In the shadow of that result, I asked a Labour organizer how low he thought the floor to the Labour Party vote had fallen. ‘You are assuming there is a floor,’ came the chilling reply.
The data reveal other key strengths for May. On a whole range of issues, her party has established a clear and likely unassailable lead on key issues. Even if the election campaign transforms this contest into the ‘Brexit election’, there is no reason to expect this to damage the Conservative Party. When voters are asked to identify the party they think will best manage Brexit, it is the Conservative Party that enjoys a striking 25-point lead over Labour. Nor has there been any evidence of widespread regret after the referendum last June. It is a similar story in other policy areas — the Conservatives are ahead by a sobering 24 points on the crucial issue of the economy and enjoy big leads on immigration, law and order, taxation, education and unemployment.
But there’s another factor: People aged over 65 are the highest turnout group in British politics, having played a key role in delivering a surprise Conservative majority in 2015 and a shock vote for Brexit in 2016. It is, therefore, no surprise that today they break strongly for the Conservative Party: 61 per cent back the party compared to just 12 per cent who back Labour. When asked who would make the best prime minister, 68 per cent of Britain’s pensioners say May while just 8 per cent say Corbyn. Such numbers point toward a looming catastrophe for Labour.
Prime Minister May will most likely spend much of the next seven weeks pitching direct to these older social conservatives, to hard-working families, the aspirational working-class, and trying to bring angry Euroskeptics who previously defected to Nigel Farage back into the Conservative tent.
In recent months she has assiduously demonstrated her support for their values, whether by prioritizing immigration reform, voicing her support for grammar schools, pushing back against the ‘liberal elite’ and ‘citizens of nowhere’. If May successfully wins back just half of the UKIP vote then at least 40 Labour seats will fall to the Conservatives — seats where in 2015 Farage and his party took upwards of 10 per cent of the vote.
May’s reference while calling for an early election to people who want ‘control of their laws, money and borders’ is a clear sign of her intention to mobilize the same public concerns over sovereignty, immigration, security and economic competence that handed David Cameron a majority in 2015 and delivered the vote for Brexit. It is a potent cocktail.
That Lynton Crosby — the election strategist who masterminded the 2015 campaign and in particular the mobilization of English voters against fears of an impending Labour-Scottish National Party coalition — is running the campaign should also be ringing alarm bells in Labour HQ.
In the end, therefore, the result of the 2017 general election may be less shocking than its sudden arrival. But make no mistake: this is a contest that is Theresa May’s to lose.
This article was originally published by Politico.