The two contenders for the Tory crown have both said they don’t intend to call an early election, to secure a fresh mandate for their government.
The odds on an early election have lengthened as a result.
But should we actually rule it out?
The last time there was a change of Prime Minister during a Parliament was when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007. Brown toyed with the idea of securing a fresh mandate, and after a period of damaging speculation, ruled it out. His reputation took an early hit, and never recovered.
That lesson will be in the minds of today’s leadership contenders. The lesson is, don’t speculate about having an early election, don’t even hint at it. But that doesn’t mean rule it out completely in your own mind.
So, as the new Prime Minister settles at her desk, what are the cases for and against having that early election?
For an early election:
– The government elected in 2015 does not have a Brexit mandate. In fact the majority of MPs are remainers. The referendum is not constitutionally binding. The new PM has to pursue a policy that does not have a Parliamentary mandate. Perhaps it would be wise to get one.
– Re-unite the Conservative party. The party has a division over EU membership, and the remainers are nervous about what might happen over the next few years, and fear possible voter backlash from a prolonged weakness in the economy. A new mandate on a Brexit commitment binds everyone in, and would smooth out post-leadership contest tensions.
– Take advantage of opposition disarray. Labour is crippled by its leadership turmoil. The chances are it would have a horrible campaign, with more focus on itself than on the government. It would be bound to lose seats, with plenty of marginals tipping to the Conservatives.
– Buy time. If the Brexit process ends up dragging out, and more complicated than many expect, it would be useful to have some time to spare before having to secure a further mandate. Five years in the bag would be more appealing than three-and-half.
Against an early election:
– The problem of when? If it’s to be straight away – October/November – what does the Conservative party have to offer in terms of a clearly worked out plan for Brexit? Whitehall hasn’t worked one out yet. And a hastily cobbled together offer could easily fall apart under campaign scrutiny.
– The problem of why? An election out of the normal sequence has to have a justification. Otherwise voters detect opportunism and that can end up costing the initiator of the election dearly. So there has to be a narrative, and one that will hold throughout the campaign. The justification would presumably be a mandate for delivering Brexit. But that risks turning into a re-run of the referendum. Voters could take all sorts of revenge.
– Yet more uncertainty. Markets are already spooked, and the feed through to damage in the real economy is starting. Would it be wise to add yet more, by injecting another month of uncertainty, while the voters choose a new Parliament?
Are there any lessons from history?
Yes. First, don’t do a Gordon Brown.
Second. Remember Stanley Baldwin.
Baldwin took over as Conservative leader and Prime Minister from an ailing predecessor. The government’s mandate was just a year old. But he decided to secure a fresh mandate. Why? He wanted to change his predecessor’s central economic policy, free trade. Baldwin wanted protectionism, to help combat rising unemployment. He also wanted to reunite his party, which was still split internally both over tariff reform and as a result of the earlier war coalition under Lloyd George.
Hence Baldwin’s 1923 election. It didn’t go well. The Conservatives lost their majority, losing 67 seats to the Liberals and 40 to Labour.
Given the balance of the arguments and the warnings from history, the new Prime Minster may decide that an immediate appeal for a new mandate is a risk too far. Theresa May seems instinctively cautious. But Andrea Leadsom?
In any case, the issue may not go away entirely. When there is a worked out Brexit plan, and if the Conservative’s inner tensions are still unresolved, and if Mr Corbyn has secured a further mandate to lead Labour, well, the balance of the argument may start to shift the other way.