Will Theresa May call a general election in the spring? The question seems to be on the minds of some MPs at Westminster. When she became prime minister in July, Mrs May was adamant that there was no need for her to go to the country and seek a popular mandate. Recent events have left some politicians wondering whether she might reconsider her position.
Speculation has grown because of events in parliament last week. Mrs May opposed the call by a cross-party group of MPs to hold a formal Commons debate on her negotiating terms before she triggers Article 50, the pathway to Brexit. However, she was forced to give way after a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers. This has highlighted the fact that Mrs May’s Commons majority is small and that she could have trouble next year implementing the Great Repeal Bill, the first stage in ending the application of EU law in Britain.
The prime minister says she will trigger Article 50 by the end of March. If she were to call an election at that same moment it would help her in two ways.
First, she would probably end up with a much larger majority. The Conservatives are currently 17 points ahead of Labour in the polls, according to ICM — a lead that would translate into a majority of 125. With numbers like that, she would not be held hostage to the hard and soft Brexiters in the party as she negotiates with the EU.
Secondly, an election victory would give a clear popular mandate for the Article 50 letter setting out her negotiating terms. It would strengthen her authority at home at a time of mounting uncertainty for the UK economy, with prices rising and living standards falling. It would make clear to European leaders that her negotiating terms are firmly backed by the British people. She would also be justified in going to the country at that moment given France and Germany are holding elections in May and September and little progress can be made in the EU talks.
But one reason why people question this scenario is that calling an election these days is complicated. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act introduced by David Cameron, a prime minister needs the Commons to agree a dissolution. She would have to ensure that two-thirds of MPs, 433 of the current 650, supported her — meaning she would need Labour votes.
In a recent column in the Guardian, Martin Kettle asked: “Why should Labour MPs become willing martyrs in an election that by definition the Tories thought they would win handsomely?”
A second reason not to go to the country is the fear that the British public do not want an election. The UK went to the polls in 2015 and held a divisive and difficult referendum in 2016. Its appetite for another vote in 2017 is likely to be limited.
Ultimately, the decision boils down to Mrs May herself. She is by nature a cautious politician who is bound to wonder why she should take the risk of holding an election when she still has three years of her mandate to run. But speculation is unlikely to die quickly and she will have to make a firm decision. As Gordon Brown showed in 2007, voters do not like the appearance of dithering.
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