The last six weeks have been dominated by rumours that a spring general election was imminent. It isn’t going to happen and the sensible money should now be that it won’t until 2020.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a variety of compelling reasons why Theresa May would want to go to the country – her own mandate, a bigger majority, a new manifesto, etcetera etcetera etcetera – but the reality of the situation, namely the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, has overruled the politics.
If a general election had been safely engineered, was undertaken prior to substantive Brexit negotiations taking place, and delivered the Tories a thumping majority, it would have been a masterstroke of political gamesmanship and cemented Theresa May’s control for the remainder of this Parliament.
But all the talk of a general election ignores the fact that we do have elections. Imminently. Big ones. Ones which have the potential to, at least in part, provide the political stability the Government needs.
On 4th May the UK will elect over four thousand Councillors, six newly-created combined local authority mayors, two local authority mayors, and one new Member of Parliament. And the campaigns are now live.
Earlier in the week we heard Jeremy Corbyn launch Labour’s campaign in Nottinghamshire. It’s telling that Theresa May chose the same county to accuse her rivals of being in “chaos and disarray”, of indulging in “ideological obsessions” and of “talking our United Kingdom down”. All thinly veiled attacks targeting Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP respectively, and all of which seeking to reaffirm her position that only the Conservative Party has a plan for Britain and for Brexit.
As election launches go, it was a low-key affair. Theresa’s strategy was to attack the infighting, chaos, and mixed-messaging of rival parties, while positioning herself as the beacon for stability and the person who’ll ensure “no part of the country is left behind”. She knows that these elections will be the first electoral test of her stewardship and despite consistently large poll leads, and predictions from experts that Labour and UKIP will suffer heavy losses, she understands that a resurgent Liberal Democrat Party and a burgeoning SNP will embolden the performance of these parties at a national level.
Theresa May’s tone today was measured and statesmanlike, and will likely fly under the radar of significant media commentary. But it will not be attributed the significance it deserves. Political realities prevent her from going to the nation but she is going to the regions, and knows that a robust performance will still give her a significant mandate from the electorate – albeit in a different form.
In launching her party’s election campaign today, the Prime Minister painted a picture of chaos vs competence. She knows a strong Conservative performance will strengthen her hold of the political centre ground while forcing opposition parties to further divert resources; reducing their impact on national issues and forcing them to focus on becoming electable again.
In May, the prize of victory won’t be that Theresa May gains greater freedom and flexibility to pursue her agenda. Her prize will be that opposition parties become even more distracted from their true responsibility: holding the Government to account.