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.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy