Barely an hour after the announcement from the Prime Minister today that there is to be a general election, I overheard a student on her phone as I was leaving one of the libraries at the University of Bristol – ‘Yeah, Theresa May has just called a general election to f*** over Labour’. This struck me as I recall just this view being bandied around shortly after Theresa May’s selection as leader of the Conservative Party amid speculation whether or not she would call a general election. Clearly the repeated assertions from No.10 that there would not be a further general election counted for little with this student.
But what are we to make of Theresa May’s change of heart? Does her resistance to call an election for almost a year from becoming Prime Minister count for anything? That she resisted the urge to capitalise on a disintegrating Labour Party for as long as she did, is indicative of the Prime Minister to be a classier act than the student above perhaps would agree. Indeed, the PM took steps to emphasise that she had reached her conclusion ‘reluctantly’, openly acknowledged her U-turn, and placed blame at the door of the opposition parties in Parliament. What is undoubtedly clear, is that Brexit will be the central issue, once again, over the next six-weeks.
Despite the frustrations of many who oppose the government, or who have simply grown tired repeated calls from the ballot-box over the last few years, it is submitted that the Prime Minister has acted with informed pragmatism, and this election promising to finally determine exactly what type of mandate the government will have as Brexit unfolds.
Firstly, as has been said, Theresa May could have easily called for a general election immediately on her accession to as Prime Minister. But she resisted. It is hard to sustain that Labour’s position has changed dramatically in the ten-months since the referendum. Based on current polling, Labour stand to make substantial losses across the country, whereas satisfaction with Theresa May as PM is way up at 52% compared to Jeremy Corbyn’s record-low of 23% as Labour Leader. Additionally, though satisfaction with the Government as a whole is only at 38%, this is nothing out of the ordinary compared against this and previous governments. It is no secret that, since Corbyn became leader, Labour’s polling has been diabolically poor. But it is also clear that, having won two leadership contents, Corbyn has earnt his right to contest a general election. Perhaps once Corbyn has his stab at contesting a general election, his supporters will be served some home-truths and realise how out-of-step they are with their core-voters? Maybe then, the Labour party will finally get its act together and form the effective opposition the United Kingdom desperately deserves.
Secondly, the media has been swamped with speculation as to ‘what type’ of Brexit the Government has a mandate for. Having secured a barely adequate degree of unity in Westminster to trigger Article-50, it is becoming increasingly clear that this first-step was to be simple compared to the forthcoming challenges within Parliament as negotiations with the EU get under way. This is no surprise – the referendum question was framed in negative terms and gave no indication as to the form Brexit should take. As such, the politician who asserts the Brexit-vote was about control of immigration has no more weight than the politician who argues that Britain didn’t vote to damage economic growth. The only argument that flows from Brexit that withstands scrutiny, is that Brexit was for the return of legislative powers to Westminster as this is the one identifiable outcome that follows from any type of Brexit. As such, a coherent argument can be formed that, following the vote, we hand over to the Government to forge the best deal possible under the watchful eye of Parliament.
However, as we have seen, asking a Parliament elected in 2015 that was over-whelming in favour of remaining within the EU, to agree a vision for Britain outside of Europe, has been perhaps too much to ask for. The electorate have reaffirmed Parliament’s role as our sovereign law-maker, but what do you do if your sovereign law-maker isn’t sure what it wants?
‘Hold a general election and get a new one’ is the clear and pragmatic response from Theresa May, and thank goodness. The Prime Minister is addressing the debate that has been going on in Parliament since June 2016, and forcing politicians to take their cases to the electorate. The EU referendum answered a negative question, but it is now time to positively determine what type of Brexit will be pursued. Parties will now have to field candidates on manifestos outlining a particular vision for Brexit, thus establishing a mandate for whatever policies are eventually pursued.
It is also right that a general election is held now, ensuring that a new Parliament is place in time to respond to the negotiating position of the EU of whatever type of national government emerges. Indeed, it is ‘now or never’.
Unsurprisingly, the left has already pounced upon this announcement, painting this general election as brazen attempt by the Government to remove opposition to its vision for Brexit. But it isn’t without irony that those most avert to the ‘hard Brexit’, allegedly advocated by the present Government, are also those who are particularly conscious that they stand to lose monumentally in any forthcoming elections. Curiously, somehow it is still the Tories fault that the left is unreflective of the views held by the majority of the British electorate!
The time is right to sweep away those that are demonstrably unreflective of British opinion and to bring in a new Parliament which does. The EU referendum was unprecedentedly divisive based on the framing of the question in negative terms. Now it is right to form a positive vision for what Brexit should look like. The Prime Minister has taken a momentous step, putting her majority on the line to answer this question once-and-for-all.
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