Eh? What news? I normally spend lunchtimes feeding on a variety of online news sources, but today of all days, I missed this important duty. In those feverish moments before I was able to reach the BBC website, a number of possibilities tumbled through my head, led by the thought that North Korea had dispatched a few missiles across the border into central Seoul, triggering the start of some Asian Armageddon. Within the kaleidoscope of options, a British general election announcement was nowhere to be seen, so I suppose it can be counted as some other type of bombshell.
No need to repeat Harold Wilson’s most famous soundbite, nor Macmillan’s, but both would fit nicely here. We can expect unexpected events over these 50 long days, but who these will benefit, or damage, we don’t know. From this heady vantage point, June 8 seems likely to be a good day for the LibDems and for Theresa May and the Tories; and a bad one for Labour and UKIP. Most of us hope that an election will help to heal the country’s Brexit wounds, but the risk is that they’ll worsen.
If too much can happen between now and 8 June to predict in any detail how the seats will be distributed, what can be said with reasonable confidence? The election seems likely to clear the air in some areas, but just as likely to create some new pollution to replace it. Presuming that the Conservatives win with an increased majority, the election will:
— reduce the moaning about May not having been elected. I’ve never understood this complaint as we don’t elect PMs in the UK, and never have done. I presume people mean that the Tories haven’t won a general election with her as party leader, which is quite true;
— weaken the complaint that the government has no mandate for whatever texture of Brexit — hard, soft, clean, furry, a little bit corrugated — that opponents are convinced is being secretly manufactured. I find these arguments puzzling, as it’s not in May’s gift to pronounce what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations will be. For instance, with the EU insisting that they can’t and won’t offer the UK an advantageous deal, I’m struggling to see how it’s possible to pre-announce that we will remain in the single market. I’m not even saying I’m for or against. I’m saying that before any negotiation has even started, never mind concluded, we can’t unilaterally decide what flavour of Brexit will be delivered;
— give May a mandate for her strange grammar school policy, which would struggle to be approved at the moment. I’m not a fan myself, but if it’s a winning manifesto policy, it’s much harder for parliament to block;
— greatly reduce the threat of the eventual Brexit deal being rejected by the House of Commons in 2019/20. Labour have already announced that they’ll vote against it by insisting on some unrealistic conditions, so it would need only a small handful of Tory MPs to object, and the whole thing would capsize. A bigger Conservative majority would strengthen the domestic Brexit hand and increase its credibility at the negotiating table;
— allow May to cast off the shackles of Cameron’s 2015 manifesto, which was designed as a basis for coalition negotiation with the LibDems, and not as a practical policy plan for government. Everyone knows that its inability to easily raise extra revenue is a serious obstacle. It could be the end of the pensioners’ “triple lock” and the ring-fencing of National Insurance contributions.
If these problems are removed, some new ones will appear. Scotland is a powder keg, and the June election seems more likely to be a flame than a bucket of water at the moment. Sturgeon is sure to position the election as an ersatz referendum on independence, and even though the SNP vote seems likely to slip, the inevitable overall victory will be touted as proof that the Scottish people have spoken in favour of IndyRef2. That same slippage will be cited by some as an indication of a weakening of the will. Result? More political bloodshed without much territorial progress.
Naturally, many will see the general election as EUref2, particularly those on the Remain side whose wounds refuse to heal. What do they do? Recent studies have concluded that for many, Brexit has become a bigger issue than traditional party loyalties. Will they abandon normal voting preference and go for the Remain candidate? We’ve seen what happened in Richmond, where the Remainers elected accidental politician, Sarah Olney, in preference to the high-profile sitting MP. No doubt that will be repeated elsewhere. The Tories won nearly 30 seats from the LibDems in 2015. Many, perhaps most, will revert, especially in big Remain constituencies.
Another unclear facet is the apparent fading of UKIP. They have no seats to lose, but with nearly four million votes last time around, one wonders where their demob-happy troops are heading. Not the LibDems or Greens, that’s for sure. Most likely to be the Tories, though doubtless Labour will benefit here and there, especially in Wales and the northern Labour heartlands.
Ah, Labour. Remember them? Despite the UKIP deserters, it looks like Labour’s fortunes will continue to darken before any possible new dawn. You have to feel sorry for their decent, traditional support, particularly those unable to warm to Jeremy Corbyn, and/or Remainers who feels he’s betrayed them. Do they stick with the habit of a lifetime, or hold their noses and go for a more forthright Remain candidate — probably LibDem?
I’m not yet convinced that this will be a Tory walkover. The simple truth is that they could actually be thrown out of office if the opposition parties agreed to combine their forces, as high profile commentators are advocating, like the engagingly gruff Paul Mason, and Paddy Ashdown with his More United initiative. Political ego seems to make such an arrangement unlikely, but this could work in reverse if Jeremy Corbyn’s own political ego becomes too fearful of a heavy beating and the eternal humiliation that would follow. It might just be enough to persuade him to hitch his wagon to a LibDem-Green alliance.
The conclusion is… not very conclusive. While there seems to be broad agreement that the government will strengthen its position, for this addict, there are enough side issues to keep his political syringe filled to bursting.