All revolutions come to an end; and mercifully the last month is over. We have a Prime Minister; the economy is proceeding vaguely OK; UKIP and Labour are back competing for the prize for best circular firing squad – and we can afford to breathe a little easier as we slap on the factor 15.
But the underlying politics hasn’t gone away. And one of the questions which is going to keep coming up is whether or not Theresa May is going to call a snap election.
The conditions couldn’t be better – a honeymoon period for a new PM; an opposition far down in the polls and so divided that the only way it can become more split is if they bring in nuclear physicists. For most of the country, the slogan can be ‘Conservatives. Have you seen the alternatives?’
The prize is worth having too. Right away, it gives the PM her own electoral mandate – both with the country and with her own MPs. That will be jolly handy in the Brexit deliberations, especially if the deal turns out not to be to everyone’s liking. Second, it is a chance to expand that woefully thin majority into something actually workable. Third, if timed right, it could send the Labour party so far into the electoral wilderness that it guarantees a decade of Tory rule.
Balanced against that, though, elections are risky. And as far as the public is concerned, we’ve had more than enough votes, thank you very much. At a time of crisis, it sends the wrong message for everyone to go back to their constituencies – especially for what might look like a nakedly political stunt.
You can balance the presentational arguments any way you want. But the one question you can’t duck is ‘would this actually work’?
The election wouldn’t be worth calling if Labour weren’t in such a dire state. The latest polls show a Tory lead of something between 6% and 14% (at the election, it was 6.6%). That’s before the Tories unlock their filing cabinet of everything Jeremy Corbyn has ever done – which they’ve so far had no need to open. According to Electoral Calculus, the Tories could expect a majority of about 50 from current poll shares.
It could get a lot better for them though. If the Labour party does split (and, for a loose enough definition of ‘split’, that boat has already sailed), the gap opens up much wider. Out of interest, I pulled out the 2015 General Election data, and looked what would happen if the Labour vote was cut precisely in half. The results shocked me.
If you combine a perfect split with the current poll numbers, the two halves of Labour combined win just 98 seats; and Theresa May comes home with a majority of 264. The Tories win seats like Sunderland Central and Islington South. If you assume the two halves of Labour get a fair split of MPs, the SNP becomes the largest opposition party.
And this is without a single extra person voting Tory who isn’t currently planning to do so.
It’s the same method that the SNP has used to capture all but three seats in Scotland with only 50% of the votes – with your opposition split, the ruling party always wins big. If you don’t like it, you should have thought about that when we had the AV referendum.
Of course, this result is an arithmetic fiction. Labour won’t split neatly in half (the worst possible outcome in a first-past-the-post system), and more generally a catastrophe like this would not occur through a neat two-party swing without a lot of strategic swirls to shape its position on the ground.
But in 1983, when the SDP walked away from the Labour party, it took about a quarter of Labour voters with them. Some of that is already priced into the poll numbers. But even with just 10% of current Labour voters splitting off, the government could expect to take about 42 seats. Parliamentary maths turns that into a majority of 100.
But there’s always a ‘but’
Based on that, you think someone from CCHQ should be out picking the battle-bus already. But before they start checking the sockets and steaming the Boris off the back seats, I offer one cautious question. Where have the Remain voters gone?
If my twitter feed is anything to go by, Remain voters are still somewhat upset. They are unlikely to be voting Tory any time soon. And what we saw from the Scottish referendum is that when people are mobilised in a referendum, they often go through quite a fundamental change in their political identity. Dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters looked in the mirror and suddenly realised that they now voted SNP.
I don’t know where the Never-Leave camp will end up. But the Liberal Democrats are the ones making the clearest and most direct pitch for their support, drawing on a long and committed history of pro-European activism. And while this isn’t showing up in a big Lib Dem surge in current polls, I’d be very surprised if it didn’t manifest itself over the next 18 months.
The last election was all about the Tories stealing Lib Dem votes. The next election could well see those same voters flooding back. In West London, where I live, the Tories have driven out all but one Lib Dem MP; but with stonking Remain majorities I think they are very vulnerable here. Other seats, like Bath or Oxford East, also look primed to fall.
In addition, the Tory victories in these seats was driven in a large part by a belief that it was a choice between Cameron or Miliband. While people might choose Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn, it won’t feel like the same kind of decision. If anything, the Lib Dems can make a convincing claim that it would be folly to give the Tories that kind of power without an effective opposition.
So I suspect there could be 15-40 seats where a Lib Dem resurgence could eat into that Tory electoral margin. And human beings are loss-averse – one seat likely to be lost feels more real than one ready to be won. Especially when losing eight of them means you’re a minority government. Without Labour disarray, an election becomes very risky.
Never mind if; when?
Setting aside whether this is a good idea, an election definitely is not a good idea right now. Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake, and at this moment both Labour and UKIP are busy destroying themselves. Another six months of self-destruction leaves more time and space for the coup de grace. The thing the Tories really want is to go into the election fighting an officially divided Labour party, busy screwing each other out of voters.
But the longer they wait, the more time government has to be pinned to a plan for Brexit. Right now, the government position satisfies about 75% of the country – the people have spoken and we promise to try and figure out what they said. The negatives of having to choose, and potentially getting quite a poor deal, have yet to filter through. When the choices are explicit, the politics becomes a lot more complicated. Given that the government will be seeking a compromise, it can expect to be attacked from both sides.
There’s probably a sweet spot in early 2017 – long enough for Labour to be in open warfare; soon enough that Brexit still feels like a distant thing happening to other people.
While I stop here, there are still plenty of surprises lurking in the shadows. If Labour splits, does anti-Corbyn Labour partner up with the Lib Dems? Is the Tory party immune to splits, or is there mischief to come? Where is Scotland in all of this? Will the politics of parliament find a way around the ballot box? There’s room for a book’s worth of caveats.
But as things stand there are good reasons for an election, and soon. And there’s no fixed terms parliament act in the world that’s capable of stopping them.