Time for another vote

As Theresa May takes charge, Daran Hill outlines why she should consider a fresh General Election.

No, I’m not calling for another referendum to reverse the Brexit one last month, but I am calling for a General Election before the end of the year. Although it is not entirely straight forward for Mrs May to do this, it is both possible and desirable.

The British constitution is at its best when it is flexible. The previous silence on whether a new Prime Minister has to go to the country shortly after being selected has in the past been open to widely varying interpretation. Thus Anthony Eden called a snap election in 1955 but two years later Harold Macmillan felt no such compulsion. He cited the period of acute instability following the Suez Crisis as reason to soldier on without going to the country.

Arguably, that was the last major political crisis in the UK until the decision to leave the European Union, so Mrs May could quite conceivably use the same arguments to maintain herself in office.

The key thing is that it is very much her choice. The British constitution allows the Prime Minister the ability to call a General Election or not do so. Get it wrong, as Gordon Brown did in 2007, and you can sour your entire premiership. Get it right, and you get a boost and a mandate.

Since 2010, however, there has been the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which saw David Cameron become one of the very few Prime Ministers in history to significantly reduce their ability to manoeuvre in constitutional terms. Though not insurmountable, the Act does make it more difficult to call a snap election. It was always a silly, unBritish piece of legislation, which limited the ability to choose and govern without conferring any real benefits. Arguably it was needed to give security to a coalition, but in the normal pattern of British politics where one party has a majority it is more annoying than anything else.

It would be far more democratic if the Prime Minister gives us all a choice. Mrs May inherits the premiership at a point where the only people who have been able to cast a ballot for or against her are her fellow Conservative MPs. This was of course 330 more people than ever cast a ballot for Gordon Brown but it does still leave her without a clear mandate to govern.

After the most traumatic month in British political history the new Prime Minister should give serious thought to going to the country in the autumn. Crucially, this is not just a selfish demand from those on her own side. Several Conservatives have called for this option. The Liberal Democrats have called for an election. Even the Labour Party, despite its own local difficulties, favours an election, which is perhaps the most altruistic sentiment ever to emerge from an official opposition in Westminster.

Opening a new election would also allow parties to clearly spell out where they stand and seek a mandate. The Liberal Democrats could reject Brexit as fiercely as UKIP would welcome it. The SNP could present a case for a new independence referendum, and use the election result as a mandate for change if they get anywhere near the 56 MPs they have now. Plaid Cymru could adopt a similar tactic.

The new Prime Minister thus has enough political cover to make this decision and reverse what she just said just a few weeks ago. The country needs to be heard in the autumn as much as it did in the referendum.

Not only would a fresh General Election potentially give her the mandate to govern, it would also unite the country, and that is something that is sorely needed at this present time.

Daran Hill is MD of Positif.

6 thoughts on “Time for another vote

  1. Constitutional arguments aside and given Labour’s disarray, if May has a good run on Brexit up to her autumn conference the clamour for an election from within Tory ranks will grow. It will help shut UKIP up and should give her an increased majority.

  2. The simple question is does Mrs May enjoy a secure majority in Parliament which can pass the necessary legislation (scores of Acts require negotiation as they contain references to the EU – the Good Friday Agreement with the govt of the Lirish Republic is, for example, one which will become null and void overnight with potentially violent consequences if Britain simply abbrogrates it by leaving the EU.
    The legislative demands of A50 will make the Maastricht Treaty debates look like a vicarage tea party. It has been compared to the political and legal equivalent of the US military withdrawal from Vietnam. With a notional majority of 16 John Major very nearly lost Maastricht. Once the terms of Brexit are set there are bound to be Tory MPs who disagree passionately with particular elements of a deal that can’t (because the entire package has been delicately negotiated with 26 other govts) be allowed to be unpicked item by item but will have to be passed through Parliament as such. We have already seen with the vote in principle last week on EU nationals already living here how difficult it is going to be for the government to prevent Parliament undermining their negotiating hand bit by bit.
    For the moment the new PM has a window of opportunity to secure her own direct mandate, bind the Tory Party into a Brexit manifesto and destroy a Labour Party (marooned on the losing side of the Brexit debate and alienated from its core heartlands vote which backed Leave in large numbers in the Valleys and post-industrial towns) for a decade if not for good. I believe with no enthusiasm that this is the most likely outcome. Clearly one wouldn’t consider calling an election unless one sees a strong chance of winning (though check out last week’s Aussie election for one exception), but as with Gordon in ’07 once the slide in popularity begins and the economy implodes Theresa May might well regret not chancing her arm.
    With a recession of uncertain scale or duration looking very likely by the end of this year I also agree with Daran that having a government which appears secure to last the course of a full parliament will help hugely with the confidence and certainty that is essential for persuading UK businesses big and small to borrow, invest and create employment.

  3. Prime Ministers dont have mandates; parties do. May has the same mandate as Cameron and the same manifesto. It was endorsed by the electorate only 10 months ago. I am sure that a Presidential system is more media friendly and would justify gladiatorial debating contests but that is not the constitution we live in.
    That said May might find it desirable to call an early election as she may want to introduce a number of new manifesto commitments or seek to shatter what remains of the official opposition. Daran thinks another election would unite the country. I doubt that would happen.

  4. Jon has made my point ahead of me. The British constitutional tradition is that the electorate votes for parties and it is the largest party that is invited to form a Government, even a coalition one. The party choses its leader. I don’t remember anyone calling for a new election when Rhodri Morgan displaced Alun Michael as First Minister of Wales for example.

    Any decision to hold a sudden general election would be a political rather than a constitutional one. Theresa May has a new mandate that David Cameron did not have, to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU. That will probably take all of her energy and attention and that of her Cabinet to carry out successfully. The stakes still remain high on this one. If she gets this one wrong, then her party is poised to stab her in the back. Given the size of this challenge, I would be surprised if Ms May decided to distract herself with the demands of a constitutionally unnecessary general election.

  5. “it would also unite the country,”
    Whatever a General Election would do and I’m sure it would be plenty, uniting the country wouldn’t be one of them.

    As I understand it triggering Art. 50 isn’t about trade deals with the EU or what future relationship the UK has with the EU. Those negotiations start after the UK formally leaves the EU. What we’ve got officially for the next two years or so is more like an administrative procedure.
    Any mandate, and it should be for a government, whether single party or coalition, rather than an individual, could then be established by a general election. A mandate as to whether the UK negotiates to enter into the EEA or not or other arrangements.

  6. I know the world (or at least the UK) has been ‘turned upside down’ as a result of the referendum just 3 weeks ago but has Daran lost his leave of senses as a result? With labour presently tearing itself to pieces, plaid, the lib dems, the greens et flat broke and their activists apparently exhausted surely only the most gung ho tory would want a general election in the current climate? As it would most likely result in a landslide tory majority.

    As things stand this is a very weak british tory government, indeed its already seen some of its reactionary programme derailed or rolled back. And despite the sudden outbreak of ‘unity’ in their ranks since Ms May got the keys to 10 downing street they are still a deeply divided party on what the terms of brexit should actually look like. And it would not take much for it’s sizable hard right anti european wing at westminister to resort to its favourite past time of destabilising their own prime ministers.

    Surely far better for those of us of a progressive political persuasion – as daran surely still is – to allow them to stumble on and see its popularity decline as a consequence of the full economic impact of brexit and the divisions that will re-emerge among the tories as a result.

    Also after nearly 2 decades of devolved governments across the UK isnt it time we used the term ‘countries’ (ie England, Scotland and Wales) and not ‘country’ when discussing political matters in the british isles? I’d expect to come across terms like ‘going to the country’ and ‘The country needs to be heard’ in a daily telegraph leader rather than a blog devoted to matters in Wales – and especially not from such a prominent welsh devolutionist as Daran. Certainly If nearly 20 years of devolution hasnt changed the language used by political commentators in wales then the contemporary political scene is more grim than i thought.

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