Despite the existence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there’s a lot of speculation about just when the next General Election might be. It’s entirely understandable given the current political situation and how much has changed in the fifteen months since the last general election, even if making one happen is now more difficult than it used to be.
At the moment, the general consensus is that May is looking at the prospect of an election in May 2017. There are good reasons for this: she’s inherited a small Commons majority, she needs a proper mandate for Brexit negotiations, she has a good size lead in the polls, and the official Opposition is in absolute disarray. The only real doubt is how she’d actually get Parliament to dissolve itself – would Labour MPs vote for it (some but not all are needed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed), or would the public accept the Conservative Party no-confidencing itself to trigger an election?
While the signs do point towards an attempt for an election in 2017, I’m still not convinced it will happen, because I think there’s a strong case for May waiting until 2018 for it to happen.
First, while the Government only has a small majority, the division and disarray in the Opposition means it’s not as important an issue as it was for, say, the Major Government in the 90s when a coordinated Opposition made life tough in the Commons. If the Opposition aren’t organised or unified, then a small majority is effectively much larger than it might appear.
Second, while May might want to seek a mandate for Brexit negotiations, how long will it take for her and the rest of the Cabinet to work out what mandate to ask for? Do they want to go for full hard Brexit, or just to join the EEA instead of the EU, or one of the myriad of options somewhere between the two? If May goes to the country looking for a mandate, given the circumstance the first question is going to be ‘so what’s the plan?’ I don’t think ‘elect us, then we’ll work one out’ is going to be a winning slogan, and I’m not sure that a proper plan that all sides of the Government can agree on can be worked out in time for an election next year.
On top of those factors that mean 2017 might not be as simple a choice as it seems, there’s another big reason for waiting till 2018 – the implementation of the boundary review. This will reduce the number of seats in the Commons from 650 to 600 and massively redraw and rebalance the electoral map of the UK to the benefit of the Conservatives. What it may well also trigger is a wave of selection battles amongst the Labour Party as the current aim of the party leadership appears to be to force all MPs to go through reselections for the new boundaries, prolonging the party’s current strife. We should also remember that new boundaries will also give May a chance to cement her leadership of the Conservative Party and ensure that the new Conservative candidates at the election are to her liking. Rather than keeping broadly the same mix of Tory MPs in a 2017 election, there’d be much more scope for changes in a 2018 one on new boundaries.
A 2017 election must still be a temptation – especially if the economic forecast for the years after 2017 isn’t good – but by waiting till 2018, May would get the chance to win a victory that could be close to a landslide for a party that’s committed to her vision over a Labour Party that would be swinging hard to the left. The risk of waiting and leaving herself at the mercy of unexpected events is greater, but the rewards of a 2018 election – especially if Labour continue to implode – could be well worth that risk.