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Engineering an early election looks more tempting for Mrs May

November 7, 2016 11:13 AM
By Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer

There are even many Labour MPs who secretly fancy the idea - if only to put them out of their misery

From the day that she stepped into Number 10, it has been a no-brainer to some of her colleagues that Theresa May ought to call an early general election. As it has also been to many MPs on the other side of the Commons. Her majority in parliament is slender and just became slimmer with the resignation of the Tory MP Stephen Phillips, a disillusioned Outer. The

Conservatives are favourites to retake his seat, but they won't be so fortunate with other byelections. John Major started with a larger majority in the parliament that began in 1992 and had lost it by the time he was done. Another reason for her to go to the country early is that the Tory majority doesn't really belong to Mrs May. It was won by Whatshisname, that bloke who used to live at Number 10. She lacks the personal mandate that flows to a prime minister who has won an election in her own right.

The way she has behaved towards senior members of the old regime has created a big club of enemies on her backbenches. Asked recently what he was up to, one very senior figure in the Cameron cabinet smiled: "Biding my time." Then there is Brexit. At some point in this parliament, probably at several points, there will be torrid political and constitutional crises over Britain's departure from the European Union. There will be resignations by ministers. There will be deadlocks and breakdowns in the negotiations. It is highly likely that there will be serious economic convulsions as well. Better, so goes an argument popular with Tory MPs, for Mrs May to armour herself with the much larger majority that the opinion polls indicate can be hers for the asking. That would give her five clear years to get through Brexit and all its havocs.

Mrs May has heard those arguments - and used to dismiss them. She said the voters weren't clamouring for an election. She thought that what the country most wanted was stability. It didn't fit with her image of herself to do something that would look opportunistic. Nor did it suit her risk-averse temperament. Her team calculated that Labour was in such a dreadful state that the Tories didn't need to rush for a quick kill.

Has that calculus been changed by the high court ruling that the government must secure parliamentary approval before it can formally trigger divorce proceedings with the European Union? It has. The court ruling was not, as the more hysterical Brextremists have been frothing, an example of elitist judges frustrating the will of the people. The court was reasserting the fundamental principle that the executive cannot rule by monarchical decree, but must seek the consent of parliament if it wants to change the law. There is an alternative to the rule of law - it is called dictatorship. Those who campaigned to leave the EU in the name of restoring parliamentary sovereignty ought to be able to grasp this.

The government might overturn the ruling with a successful appeal to the supreme court, but that looks unlikely. If the supremes agree that the government has to ask parliament before it can activate Article 50, it is as yet unclear how Mrs May intends to conform to the instruction. Some in government seem to think that they might get away with tabling a crude take-it-or-leave-it motion demanding that parliament simply rubber-stamps her decision. That would be defiant of the spirit of the court ruling and perhaps also of its letter. Which is why some ministers think they will have to bring forward legislation.

Parliament would not take that as an opportunity to block Brexit. Most MPs were Remainers and so were the majority of peers, but they are not going to flatly defy the referendum result. Parliament might have something to say about the timing of the departure. March is a lousy choice of month to start the countdown to withdrawal. There is a presidential election in France next spring and German elections are due in the early autumn. Nothing meaningful will be negotiated until these are over, which means Mrs May's current plan simply diminishes the time available to try to make a success of it. MPs and peers could be doing both her and Britain a favour if they slowed her down by a few months.

What parliament will definitely do is demand to know more about the government's exit strategy, if I am not being naive in imagining that such a thing exists. For more than a hundred days, Mrs May has sheltered behind the meaningless mantra "Brexit means Brexit". As one of the first to mock the vacuity of that tautology, I have to confess that it has proved a more durable blocking mechanism than I anticipated, a testimony to the potency of stubborn repetition. One explanation for this long silence could be that the government has an exit plan of such elegance that it is being kept concealed to build up the suspense and increase our collective awe when it is revealed in all its brilliance. No, me neither.

I was at the Spectator parliamentary awards dinner when Boris Johnson had the audience in involuntary spasms by declaring that the government would make a "titanic success" of Brexit. There are some deckchairs over there that need rearranging, foreign secretary. The prime minister responded with a threat that was no less vicious for coming in the guise of a joke. Mr Johnson had unwisely compared himself with the alsatian throttled by Michael Heseltine. Mrs May said: "Boris, the dog was put down when its master decided it wasn't needed any more." Yes. She really did. In a room crowded with senior politicians and journalists, the prime minister told her foreign secretary that she would kill him when it pleased her.

The government is concealing its intentions not to keep the EU guessing but to try to hide its internal confusions and divisions.

When the negotiations begin, and that will be in less than six months' time if Mrs May preserves her timetable, a lot of it will become very public anyway. She will have to tell all the key actors in the EU, including the commission and the heads of government, what sort of deal she is looking for. It will not stay secret for five minutes. The big trade-off at the heart of the negotiation will be between immigration and trade. That is already known, as are the various permutations of a deal. One of the arguments for not calling an election was that it would force an early reveal of precisely what Mrs May wants from the negotiation and that would inflame Tory divisions. If the consequence of the court ruling is that she has to show more of her hand anyway, that reason for avoiding an early election falls away. The Fixed Term Parliament Act is often cited as an obstacle. Written into the statute book during the coalition years to stop the Tories doing the dirty on the Lib Dems or vice-versa, the legislation does make it more laborious to trigger an election. In the old days, the prime minister could just pop down to Buck House to ask for a dissolution and her majesty would oblige. To get an early election, the government would have to engineer a confidence vote and deliberately lose it. That would look strange. It might try to repeal the Act, but that could run into trouble in the Lords. Alternatively, an election can be triggered if two-thirds of MPs vote to have one. That would be hard for the opposition parties to frustrate. As one senior Labour figure puts it: "Oppositions don't vote against elections."

Labour and the Lib Dems, having both called for an election when Mrs May became prime minister, would find it difficult to explain why they didn't want one. You might think that Labour would nevertheless try to prevent an election when its poll rating is so dire and the Tories have a robust lead often in double figures. Mrs May is trusted by more than twice as many voters as Jeremy Corbyn to run the economy successfully and handle Brexit effectively.

That suggests an election would see the obliteration of a substantial chunk of Labour MPs. Yet such is the state of the party that a surprisingly large number of its MPs ache for an election, if only to be put out of their misery. "I guess about half of my colleagues secretly want an early election," says one Labour MP. "They think, 'What the hell, let's roll the dice, things couldn't be any worse.'" Though they could, you know. An election in the first half of next year is not yet a certainty, but it has become quite a lot likelier. And, unusually, although for very different reasons, it would be welcome to many MPs on both sides of the Commons.

I also detect a subtle, but significant, change in the language coming out of Downing Street when it is asked the question. On Friday, a Number 10 spokesperson declared: "We have been very clear: there is no requirement for a general election before 2020." That's not really clear at all. That's not the same as saying that there definitely won't be one. There's no requirement for me to have steak and chips for my dinner, but I might choose to do so all the same.