As soon as Theresa May became the last person standing in the Conservative leadership race and therefore the Prime Minister, the calls for her to call an early election began in earnest from opposition parties. The Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, and Ukip all suggested that she had no real mandate and should therefore call an election in order to resolve this. However, May held firm and stated that with her as Prime Minister, there would not be an election until 2020. However, given the current circumstances, this would be misguided.
Currently the Conservative Party have a working majority of just seventeen in the House of Commons. However, in opinion polling they are far further ahead than this. In recent polling by YouGov, the Conservative Party held a lead of eleven percent over the Labour Party in terms of voting intention. When you factor in that Ukip are still polling at thirteen percent, and many Labour constituencies voted Leave in the EU Referendum, then the current situation looks perfectly poised for Theresa May to hugely increase her majority if an election was held in the near future.
In addition, polling has shown that the public do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn would be a viable Prime Minister. The recent Traingate fiasco has eroded public support for Corbyn even further, with polling showing that the public doubt Corbyn’s story regarding him being forced to sit on the floor by a margin of almost three-to-one. This incident has greatly damaged Corbyn’s desired image of authenticity. Proving that he likes to ‘spin’ just as much as any other politician, but he just happens to be rubbish at it. With the main opposition party being led by a leader who it can surely be agreed is unelectable, then it makes sense for Theresa May to attempt to increase her majority as soon as possible.
May should also attempt to hold an early election in order to gain a personal mandate to serve as Prime Minister. Technically, given that the UK has a Parliamentary system, there is no obligation upon May to hold a general election in order to gain a personal mandate. There have been five occasions since the Second World War where the Head of Government has changed mid-way through a Parliament. In 1957, Harold Macmillan succeeded Anthony Eden, and was then succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1975; John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher in 1990; and Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007. In none of these five cases was a general election held in order for the new Prime Minister to gain a fresh mandate. This is because in the UK we elect a Parliament and then the Government is formed from this Parliament, rather than the Prime Minister being directly elected.
However the increasing personalisation of politics, in part through the increased media coverage which comes with the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, means that although it is not constitutionally necessary to call an election, it may still be deemed necessary in the eyes of the public. In 2007, there were strong calls for Gordon Brown to call an election, with many people stating that he needed to gain a personal mandate. Interestingly, one such person was Theresa May who stated that Brown was, ‘running scared of the people’s verdict’. Ultimately, Brown chose not to call an election and served as an unelected Prime Minister until 2010. Although this was constitutionally allowed, the decision dogged him during the 2010 General Election campaign with continued assertions that he had served as Prime Minister against the will of the British people, having failed to seek their approval through the holding of an election.
Therefore, if May has any sense, she will attempt to call an early election soon in order to secure her personal mandate. This is the sensible option given the state of the opposition parties. The ongoing soap-opera in the Labour Party means that they will surely struggle to run an effective election campaign, and although Jeremy Corbyn is certain to defeat Owen Smith in September, who knows who will be leading the Labour Party come 2020. May should strike now, whilst she knows that she is guaranteed victory and an increased majority.
However, there are several difficulties inherent in the calling of an election at this time that mean May might decide against it.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means that the Prime Minister can no longer just dissolve Parliament when he or she chooses. The act set the date for the 2015 General Election as 7 May 2015, and then set an election every five years after. There are however, two ways to get around the act.
If two-thirds of the House of Commons vote for an early election to be held, then the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can be bypassed. Now, this may seem easy given that the leadership of most of the opposition parties sitting in the House of Commons have called for an early election. However, those calling for an early election in the Labour Party are those who still hold the misguided view that it is possible for Corbyn to win an election and become Prime Minister. The moderates who don’t support Corbyn will surely be loath to vote for an early general election as they will be worried about losing their seats due to the unpopularity of the party’s leadership. Similarly, although Nigel Farage called for an early general election, he has since resigned as the leader of Ukip. With Ukip poised to elect someone who nobody has ever heard of as leader, they may not be too keen on an early election either. At least until their new leader has settled in. The Green Party are in a similar situation of leadership flux, whilst the Liberal Democrat brand is surely not yet strong enough to fight another election. Seemingly, the only party who would be organised enough to fight an early general election would be the SNP. Therefore, it is difficult to see opposition parties voting in the House of Commons for an early general election to be held. It seems likely that the opposition leaders calling for an early general election after May succeeded David Cameron, were simply trying the give the new government a bit of a bloody nose.
The second way in which the Fixed-term Parliaments Act can be bypassed is through a vote of no-confidence in the government. This requires only a simple majority vote. Following a vote of no-confidence, there would then be a period of fourteen days where new governments MPs could attempt to form new governments and try to command the support of the House of Commons. May’s supporters would have to vote these proposals down in order to secure an early election. The danger of his option is firstly that the Prime Minister appears incompetent as a result of seemingly not being able to command the support of her own party following a vote of no-confidence. This would hardly be good for her electoral prospects. Secondly, in creating the situation for a vote of no-confidence, there would be the danger that Theresa May comes out of the process looking slightly Machiavellian. The public popularity of politicians and the Westminster elite remains very low, and therefore it would be hard to get them to buy into a scheme like this. Witness the unpopularity of Michael Gove after he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back in the race for the Conservative Leadership, as an example of the public’s dislike of Machiavellian politics. Therefore, a scheme like this wouldn’t do much for May’s popularity.
Therefore, there are serious difficulties inherent in the calling of an early general election, that make it somewhat unlikely that we will have an election before 2020. In addition to the constitutional difficulties, May’s original decision to say that she was ruling out an early election was likely to give the economy some sort of certainty following the repercussions which came as a result of the Brexit vote. It seems unlikely that May will want to increase this uncertainty.
Overall, it seems unlikely that an early election will be called. May seems content with the mandate earned by the Conservative Party in the 2015 General Election, whilst the constitutional requirements for calling an early election make it a very difficult task.
However, by not calling an early election, May is throwing away a golden opportunity. An opportunity to increase her Parliamentary majority hugely, and therefore guarantee the passing of her legislative agenda; whilst also potentially gaining a majority large enough to keep the Conservatives in power for many years.
But, although Theresa May should attempt to call an early general election, she probably won’t.