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As we all basked in the postprandial glow of a long weekend filled with over-indulgence, the news from Downing Street certainly cut through the sugar rush of a million chocolate eggs (Easter or otherwise).
Just when you think politics can’t get any more freaky in this country, it still manages to jump out from behind the curtain wearing a pink wig and fright mask. But enough of Theresa May’s fashion peccadillos.
There’s been speculation about a snap election ever since the indomitable Mrs May took her unelected seat at the top table. Most pundits dismissed the idea as preposterous, not only because it would completely negate the point of Parliament’s fixed term rule – put into place precisely to stop opportunistic leaders from calling a vote just when it suited them – but because the Conservatives’ healthy lead in most opinion polls made such a move unnecessary.
Yet here we are, faced with a second general election in less than 2 years, with little over 7 weeks notice.
That fixed term rule means that the PM can’t simply call the election, she has to get the agreement of the rest of Parliament. For a few brief hours I remained optimistic that our main opposition party might have something to say about that, not least because of the paucity of time to prepare. But news from Jeremy Corbyn yesterday afternoon seemed to confirm that he is happy to rubber stamp yet another dubious move from the ruling party, without even pressing for more time to get his wandering ducks in a row – not that he’s been able to silence their quacking over the past 18 months anyway.
That, of course, was one of the principal reasons for the rather unseemly haste on the part of Mrs May. With all parties currently campaigning for local council elections she sees this as a tactical advantage as it’s extremely unlikely that Tory HQ hadn’t already seen the cards she was about to deal long before she invited the rest of us to play.
The official reasoning that the PM laid out in her announcement speech referenced the election as a keystone of her Brexit strategy in bringing the country together around a common goal. That has to mean the Conservatives have been quietly planning for this eventuality in the background whilst opposition of all hues and flavours have been focusing time and, more importantly resources and money, on a vote closer to home.
Other parties now have to pull together a whole new campaign. True, this will to some extent be built on the foundations of current electioneering activities, but there’s an equal chance that splitting attention and person-power at this late stage could impact on outcomes at both local and national levels. A potential win/win for the Tories.
Another obvious motivation is that May wants to get the election out of the way now, so that she’s well ensconced when the Brexsh*t hits the fan. Whatever your views on the referendum, it’s pretty obvious that we’re in for a bumpy ride. With our eventual exit from the EU happening around a year before the next scheduled election, it’s likely that the Tories may not be in such a good place as they are now. Timing is everything, and they’d rather be a good 3 years on from that fateful day before they have to account for their actions to the electorate.
With the only similarities being an ill-conceived haste and lack of preparation, the Tories are even now spinning the election as some kind of de facto second referendum which would give them a mandate for their negotiations with Europe and probably all manner of nightmarish moves afterwards. One only has to look at the Great Repeal Bill to see our likely fate in the hands of a newly invigorated and robustly mandated Tory administration.
But perhaps the most compelling impetus behind the shock news that our beloved leader broke to us all on Tuesday morning may have been reports in the national media later that same day.
By the evening it had been confirmed to news agencies that the CPS is now seriously considering charges against 30 people in connection with the 2015 Tory General Election expenses scandal. 24 Conservatives are understood to be under investigation by the police and the Electoral Commission over expenses claims surrounding the use of the Tory ‘battle bus’ in their local campaigns.
Police forces who have sent files to the CPS relating to the allegations include Avon & Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon & Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, the Metropolitan, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire. Although there’s no indication yet of who is likely to become embroiled in official charges, it can’t be ruled out that some very senior figures may well be included. Perhaps even a sitting MP.
Unless one has a pathological faith in wild coincidence, it’s beyond reasonable belief that Conservative central office weren’t already aware of this some days, if not weeks, ago. In which case it looks very much like Mrs May has decided to jump before she was pushed. In her position it’s easy to see why an election now, under her terms, would seem preferable to one after her majority is withered by the ignominy of a full blown scandal. If nothing else, having us all focusing on an election is a great way to bury news of the greatest political scandal since John Profumo asked Christine Keeler if she came here often.
Even so, this move won’t wipe the slate clean and it’s possible that they may even end up answering to these charges in the middle of the election itself. Whether this will make any difference to dyed in the wool Tory voters remains to be seen, but it will be a telling indication if we see switching of candidates or party officials in some of the areas under investigation in the weeks to come.
One thing is clear though. This election is an advantageous opportunity that Theresa May has seized with both hands. With a healthy lead in the polls and a largely quiescent opposition still in disarray, it seems very possible that we’ll be stuck with a further 2 years on Tory terms. This will put back the next election to 2022, assuming we don’t see a further hole being blown in the fixed term principle on the whim of another lacklustre PM.
Or maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised on June 9th and, like her predecessor, the PM’s preparedness to gamble her position for the sake of internal party politics won’t play out as she expects. This is after all an opportunity to remove the Tories far sooner than most of us really expected. Perhaps a hung Parliament may not be too much to hope for, maybe even leading to some genuine moves towards electoral reform.
Otherwise the only advantage I can see in all of this is that it will give opposition parties an extra 2 years grace to prepare, rather than face defeat in 2020 and then not have another shot until 2025 we may finally be rid of Tory rule 3 years earlier than I previously predicted. It’s perhaps a small mercy, but in the circumstances it’s one I’m trying hard to be grateful for.