Before she even became the leader of the Conservative Party last summer, Theresa May had already ruled out holding a general election. In fact, she ruled out a general election until 2020 as she launched her leadership bid. She ruled out a snap election again on 4 September. And again 1 October. And again on… you get the idea.
Even as recently as March, sources close and not so close to the Prime Minister were adamant a snap general election was not going to happen. It didn’t matter that Labour were on an election footing or that the Lib Dems had selected candidates for every seat or that the Westminster lobby kept asking at every interview. We’d just had an election in 2015 and Theresa May was going to focus on the day job.
To borrow a phrase, now was not the time.
Then came the announcement that truly did surprise everyone. With just an hour’s notice and no well-placed leaks to soften the shock, Theresa May stepped out of cabinet to announce that the UK will go to the polls on 8 June. She claimed that she had only “recently and reluctantly” come to the conclusion that a general election was the only way to guarantee her mandate for Brexit negotiations as opposition parties threatened to undermine her stance.
May’s speech underlined her desire for a personal mandate from the electorate to take into negotiations with the EU. “Every vote for the Conservatives” she said “will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union.” (However it probably doesn’t hurt that polling in recent days has shown the Conservatives hold a 20 percentage point lead over Labour and the public’s trust in May’s ability to do the job consistently polls higher than trust in Jeremy Corbyn’s competence).
But even if we can understand why an election might be attractive for the Prime Minister, why now? Theresa May billed herself as the stability candidate for Prime Minister in the wake of Brexit. Her argument is that when she came to power last July the country needed a stabilising force, something she has achieved, she argues, so now is the right time.
Yet Britain will already be heading to the polls on 4 May for local elections and a by-election is underway in Manchester Gorton. Negotiations with the EU look set to start in earnest once the French elections are out of the way in the next few weeks. And though the polls look good for the Conservatives that’s not a recent boost in support. Is this all just a little last minute?
May has shown herself to be a cautious PM, occasionally to her own detriment. Her decision to keep cards close to her chest, certainly when it came to Brexit was at first welcomed. But slowly her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ approach led people to question whether she really had it all as under control as she seemed to suggest. The Economist’s Theresa Maybe front page captured the sentiment, and May leapt into action to set out her 12 Brexit objectives.
Whether that same cautious tendency is at play here, only the PM can know for sure. Her sudden decision, of course, echoes the situation of Gordon Brown back in 2007. Perhaps she is keen to show she has learnt lessons from his ultimately fatal decision not to push for an early general election?
It remains to be seen whether voters give May that personal mandate she suddenly craves. On paper, a Conservative victory looks more than likely, but this is politics in 2017. The Crown Prosecution Service is currently undertaking an investigation into several Conservative seats which may uncover potentially damaging information around campaign spending and recent part polling suggested that many of the Conservatives’ 2015 wins could be vulnerable to post-Brexit Lib Dem challenge. Of course, the fall in Labour’s fortunes may well mitigate those potential loses. Add uncertainty in Northern Ireland and a talk of another independence referendum in Scotland and we could be in for a very interesting campaign.
A bigger concern for May is whether voters punish her for her change of heart. In a political environment where trust in our representatives is highly prioritised, voters want to see politicians sticking to their words. And having repeatedly stressed her opposition to holding an election, the sudden election may not be welcomed by an electorate that tells us both anecdotally and in polling that it has severe election fatigue. Anti-Brexit and pro-independence campaigners on the other hand are well and truly engaged, so May cannot risk her typical voters protesting her decision or not turning out because a Conservative victory looks so assured on paper.
Theresa May has an unenviable task ahead of her, and this election may force her to abandon her caution and be more upfront than ever about her vision for post-Brexit Britain.
Eilidh Dickson is a Senior Account Executive at Indigo