Politicians would be well advised to be keen students of history. Had David Cameron, the former prime minister, been so he may have avoided two of the blunders which (along with the EU referendum result) prematurely terminated his premiership: failing, unlike Harold Wilson in the plebiscite he called under not dissimilar circumstances, to broadly stay above the fray in the campaign; and doing as Tony Blair did in pre-announcing his departure before the 2015 election. His successor, Theresa May, will, no doubt, be reviewing with angst the decision made by Gordon Brown in 2007 not to call an early election.
Mr Brown’s Labour Party had double-digit poll leads over the Conservatives (how centrist-Labour types must miss those days) following his first party conference speech as leader in September 2007, just a few months after his arrival in Number 10. Many of his aides urged him to call a snap election to give him a personal mandate and, probably, a larger Commons majority. The then-Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Theresa May, even goaded him to do so: ‘An early election? Bring it on!’.
How the tables have turned. Today it is the Conservative Party firmly in the ascendency, with polling indicating a Tory majority of possibly 100 seats in a putative early poll and Mrs May streaks ahead of the hapless Jeremy Corbyn as preferred PM. But what followed for Mr Brown will certainly be bedevilling the mind of the current resident at Downing Street. A series of scandals, the banking crisis and ensuing recession and a rejuvenated Mr Cameron flipped Labour’s poll leads on their heads. The early election had been abandoned and it seemed impossible that Labour could win a fourth term under Mr Brown.
As then, there is now widespread speculation that Tory HQ is plotting an early dissolution of Parliament to seize the tantalising opportunity to hit the opposition while they’re down. Not only that, but a larger majority would strip power from the barely-restrained Conservative backbenchers ready to step forth into the breach of euro-rebellion if Mrs May’s Brexit strategy is not to their liking. The rewards are obvious, but the risks? Omnipresent.
A bit of theory first. In the British parliamentary system, the mandate to govern is, in principle, conferred via the House of Commons. He or she who can command the confidence of the lower chamber is summoned by the monarch to form a government. In political terms, however, it is not quite so straightforward. Our uncodified constitution hints that, de facto, a mandate is bestowed via an electoral victory based on a manifesto. Thus Mrs May could feel that she needs a personal popular mandate in order to govern with full constitutional propriety and maximum political capital.
As always, political considerations are likely to predominate, and there are some major factors which will be central to Downing Street’s contemplation. While opinion polls do show significant Conservative leads, this is not necessarily consistent with a public desire for an early election. Mrs May has recently sought to cast herself as the antipode to the cynical Cameronite ‘game-players’; appearing to take the country to the polls solely for political gain will run contrary to this. In addition, she pledged during the aborted leadership campaign that no early election would be necessary.
Further thought will be given to the attitudes of Conservative MPs, as well as those of other parties. Many Tories would relish the opportunity to boost their majorities and tribalist motivations would bring most round to the party cause. But those MPs with insurrectionary tendencies would likely be wary of what they might (correctly) interpret as a tactic to neutralise their currently significant influence. And this is not purely academic: the Fixed Term Parliaments Act deprived the PM of the prerogative power to call an election whenever he or she chooses, so a Commons majority will be needed to do so. The Liberal Democrats have been the first out of the traps to entreat the new government to go to the people, but it is not at all clear what Labour might do. If Mr Corbyn wins the on-going contest, one might presume his team would be opposed given the likely losses the party would suffer. But might some anti-Corbyn parliamentarians see electoral defeat as a way to force the Islington MP out?
More importantly for the country, how will an early election interplay with a period of economic uncertainty and the EU withdrawal process? Markets rallied upon Mrs May’s ascension to the premiership as they scented a new government with clear direction. For all the evidence suggesting the Conservatives would win an early election, doubts in the minds of investors would nonetheless grow and fester. Any hints of a hung parliament, a weak left-wing government led by Mr Corbyn, or a Tory administration in some way beholden to diehard Brexiters or Ukip MPs, would stoke economic uncertainty and business anxiety when it is least needed.
As for the Brexit strategy, Mrs May’s team might intuit that a clear mandate from the people for a certain ‘kind’ of Brexit will give the PM the power to push ahead and pursue it. There will be a broad choice between a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ Brexit, the former placing sovereignty and immigration control above access to the single market, the latter the converse. Since the referendum ballot paper asked only whether we wished to ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, it delivered no clear mandate as to what exactly the people wanted. Thus pro- and anti-EU MPs and peers may take it upon themselves to block the invocation of Article 50 if they are dissatisfied with the government’s strategy. A fresh popular mandate via a clear position in the Tory manifesto might alleviate this problem.
There are clear potential benefits for Mrs May if she were to call and win easily an early general election: a clearer mandate for Brexit, huge (and possibly terminal) damage to the Labour Party and the neutralisation of rebellious backbenchers. But the risks are not to be scoffed at. Not to mention the economic consequences, a miscalculation could in fact enfeeble the PM.
If there is to be a ballot before the statutory date of May 2020, it is unlikely, in my view, to come before mid to late 2017. This would give the PM cover to defend it as a necessity to provide an unambiguous Brexit mandate and avoid charges of political cynicism. It would also, conveniently, be more likely to incorporate anticipated constituency boundary changes – alterations which, due to demographic change, are expected to slightly favour the Conservatives. But what would the rest of the field look like then? Might Labour or the Lib Dems be proposing a reversal to the referendum result, coaxing pro-EU voters away from the blue side? If Ukip can get its act together, it could be a potent force in snatching Brexit voters away from the other parties. If Mrs May is perceived to be aspiring to a ‘soft’ Brexit agenda, this could be particularly problematic for her.
So for all her apparent omnipotence, the new PM faces severe challenges. Whatever determination she reaches regards an early election, forces all around her will be draining away her political capital. And, though history can often serve as a useful guide, the truth is that the recent past offers no situations comparable to the present. It is a political present of potentially insoluble problems and unbridgeable political divides. Do not envy Mrs May.