As we wrote on these pages last month, there was always the distinct possibility that Theresa May would ultimately find the case for a snap General Election too hard to ignore, and so it has proven. From 1pm today, the House of Commons will debate the motion that there should be an early General Election and, barring any unforeseen circumstances, the Prime Minister will secure the two thirds majority she needs to make it so.
Nick Robinson this morning asked the PM the ‘Mrs Merton question’ – what was it about the recent 20 point poll leads that first attracted you to the idea of a General Election? May responded that every election carries a risk, but undoubtedly the minimal nature of that risk given the current polling was a significant factor in deciding to take the plunge.
To put that in context, prior to May’s announcement yesterday, there had been 36 polls collated by Britain Elects in 2017, with an average Conservative lead in these polls of 14.5%. A snap poll carried out yesterday by ICM found a 21% lead. This was the third poll inside a week to give the Tories a lead of that magnitude. Furthermore, yesterday’s ICM poll also found strong support for the election itself: 55% supported May’s decision to go to the country early, as opposed to just 15% against.
It is not just the headline voting intention figures that sit strongly in May’s favour. In 2015, the two metrics ultimately seen as having been Ed Miliband’s downfall in his battle with David Cameron were leadership and trust on the economy. On these measures, May outscores Jeremy Corbyn by an even more significant margin.
YouGov’s tracker on the best party seen as best placed to manage a range of issues has consistently found that more than twice as many voters see the Conservatives as best placed to manage the economy – by 38% to 14% on the most recent sample. Yesterday’s ICM poll found an even more stark lead for the Conservatives with May and Philip Hammond leading Corbyn and John McDonnell as the team best able to manage the economy by 51% to 12%.
On leadership, ICM found May with a net approval rating of +33%, in contrast to a net score of -48% for Mr Corbyn. We have been reminded in recent times of the need to treat opinion polls with a healthy level of scepticism, but put simply these are not numbers which leave much room for doubt. Unless something truly unforeseen occurs, Theresa May will still be in Number 10 after June 8th.
However while these polling numbers undoubtedly provided May with the reassurance that she needed to take a gamble, there are a number of other factors which are likely to have been uppermost in her mind when ultimately taking the decision. The reason given on the steps of Downing Street – that an election is needed to bring unity in Westminster on the cause of Brexit – makes for an appealing call to arms, but there are in fact more fundamental issues that will have driven the move.
Firstly, timing. Going to the polls now means that another election will not be due until 2022. This will give three full years between the point of departure from the EU in 2019 – giving significantly more breathing space after Brexit than a 2020 election would have done, allowing time for any immediate economic shocks to have subsided and giving the Government time to iron out any wrinkles arising in the immediate aftermath of departure without an imminent General Election looming. The BBC’s Laura Kuennsberg reports that senior Ministers have been briefing that this timing issue was a major factor in the PM’s thinking.
Secondly, and perhaps even more crucially, Channel 4 News yesterday reported that the Crown Prosecution Service is considering prosecution against over 30 individuals with regards to 2015 election expenses – believed to include as many as two dozen Conservatives who did not declare ‘battle bus’ spending in their local campaign returns. Faced with the very real possibility that a substantial number of her MPs could be prosecuted and forced to resign, the PM may have had at least one eye on the need to bite the bullet and go for a full election rather than witnessing a raft of potentially damaging by-elections forced by resignations. A decision is expected by the CPS in late May or early June and this is a story to keep an eye on.
Whatever her reasons, Theresa May has taken a bold move which many believed would not be in her nature. While she will be wary of resurgent Lib Dems in some of their former strongholds, the Tory lead over Labour will leave her confident of securing an enhanced majority, delivering a mandate both for her personally and her Brexit plan.
All of this will strengthen her hand, but with the two year Brexit process having only just kicked off, the ongoing situation in Northern Ireland and Nicola Sturgeon relentlessly pursuing a second Scottish referendum, not to mention that a damaging defeat for Labour is likely to see Jeremy Corbyn replaced, perhaps with a leader who may succeed in landing more regular blows on the Government. It would be a mistake for May to think an election alone will make her life easier.
Cicero Elections will be covering the General Election extensively with regular commentary, analysis and polling updates. Please do check in regularly and follow us on Twitter @CiceroElections for updates.
Main image by RachelH – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bagelmouse/