Before dawn on Saturday, January 24, 1874, Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the Conservative Party, was shaken awake by his manservant, who thrust The Times newspaper into the great man’s hands. There in black and white was a letter from Disraeli’s bitter rival, William Gladstone, announcing a general election. “I saw the necessity of accepting the challenge of Gladstone,” Dizzy wrote afterwards, “which of course he counted on my not being able to do so.” A few London streets away, Gladstone gleefully told his son, “The enemy will be furious!” (In fact, Disraeli triumphed.)
The snap election has long been part of the fabric of British politics. Prime Ministers call elections when they think they can win them. Various efforts at taking away that privilege have consistently failed, most recently the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act, which requires a vote of no confidence or a two-thirds majority to trigger a general election more than once every five years. However that act overlooked basic human psychology: if a Prime Minister calls for an election, what opposition leader wants to admit that they’re scared to face the judgment of the people?
For Theresa May, the current British Prime Minister, calling an election now was a proverbial no-brainer. Having taken over midterm, she currently has no mandate of her own; her working majority (17) in parliament is on the smallish side; and her lead in the opinion polls, around twenty percent, promises a potential landslide victory. Moreover, the great task facing her government—Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit)—currently stands in a holding pattern while France and Germany sort out their own important election decisions. It’s difficult to see why May would not have gone to the country.
Still, there were risks. May is a vicar’s daughter who has put great store in her honesty and moral authority. If her word is her bond, then she has some explaining to do after repeatedly saying she would not call an election. Her reasoning now is that “our opponents believe that because the Government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course” on leaving the European Union. That justification provoked shrill headlines about her wanting to crush all opposition in parliament with an ultra-right wing government pursuing a maximalist “hard” Brexit. In fact, the complete reverse is true.
A key element of May’s calculation in calling an election is to neutralize the Euroskeptic hardliners on her own backbenches, who in the current parliament have her over a barrel. David Cameron once called them “mad” and “swivel-eyed.” His predecessor as a Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, said they were “bastards.” Each man’s premiership was holed below the waterline by right-wing Euroskeptics. May has learnt the lesson well and wants to make sure the same fate doesn’t befall her. She needs wiggle room to negotiate a new deal with the European Union but wants the numbers in parliament to face down any critics in her own party who accuse her of selling out.
All this maneuvering suggests that May is shrewd tactician. But she also has a strategy, perhaps even a vision, beyond Brexit. When she became Prime Minister last summer, she promised that “the government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few” but by “those families just managing.” That statement had a different kind of tone to the conservatism of the more metropolitan David Cameron. Her pitch to aspirational working class Tories has its roots in the 19th century with Disraeli, who sought to bridge the gap between the “two nations” of “the rich and the poor.”
Three factors will help May as she parks her tanks firmly on this working class territory.
First, the chaos within the Labour Party, whose hapless far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is already proving himself to be as humourless, slow-witted, and politically incompetent a campaigner as everyone, not least the majority of his own MPs, predicted. Much of the time, he appears not even to know what Labour Party policy actually is. As one wag pointed out, with just 15 percent of the country thinking Corbyn would be a better Prime Minister than Theresa May, there are more people who think the moon landing was faked than believe the Labour leader will end up in 10 Downing Street. It’s all a long way from Tony Blair and Labour as the natural party of government. Even in Scotland, where the Tories have previously been toxic, it is the Conservatives, not Labour, who are emerging as the principal opposition to the dominant Scottish Nationalists—a factor that will have important consequences in any debate about independence for that country.
Second, UKIP, the party that looked set to move into the space vacated by Labour, is in free fall. Until last year, UKIP had been making inroads in some of the poorest areas of the country. But having delivered on Brexit, and without the flawed but oddly gifted leadership of Nigel Farage, support for Britain’s populist anti-European party has dramatically collapsed. Without the simple message of getting Britain out of the European Union, it’s as if the mask has been torn away, leaving, to quote David Cameron, only the “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly.” Even Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP, has left in disgust.
Third, Brexit will have political and strategic consequences for Britain stretching far into the future, but one of the least remarked upon is how the act of casting a ballot itself in the referendum might have changed voting habits. Britain politically speaking has always been tribal. If you’re raised in a particular tradition, it’s hard to break the habits of loyalty and instinct. This commitment is especially true in Labour seats, where support for the party is both longstanding and deep. But in the Brexit referendum, many traditional Labour voters broke fundamentally with their party to vote “leave.” That ballot seems to have acted as bait for them, with polls suggesting they are now well out of Labour’s pond. Much the same happened in Scotland after the independence referendum in 2014. Labour had been the largest party in the country, but it was subsequently wiped out there at the general election the following year. Old habits die hard, but they can also die fast. The tectonic plates may be shifting, just as they did in 1923 for the Liberal Party, which was decimated, never to recover as a major party of government.
May is going to win the election on June 8. The question is by how much. Only stratospherically raised expectations can damage her now.