Until this morning, the biggest surprise news I might have expected to hear this week was who the new Doctor is, then there came news that Theresa May was going to be making an announcement at 11.15.
'I have spent the weekend in extensive talks with Chris Chibnall and I am now calling on the nation to unite behind Kris Marshall.'
— Nick Barlow (@nickjbarlow) April 18, 2017
I might almost have preferred that, but instead it looks like we’re getting the first snap election Britain’s had for a while and everyone’s spent the rest of the day running around wondering just what it all means. Me included, and having failed to come up with an explanation for everything, I’ve decided to resurrect my General Election Diary feature just so I can chronicle all the strange things that go on over the next seven weeks and also leave a historical record of my descent into gibbering incoherence by the 8th of June. We’ve got the longest UK election campaign I can recall in a time when all politics appears to have gone stark staring bonkers, so who knows what I might be happily chronicling in a few weeks time as if it’s entirely normal?
So, what has happened today? Well, the Prime Minister called for a General Election in a speech that gets scarier the more often you see it. Talking about how “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.” and “The country is coming together but Westminster is not.” amongst other things is the rhetoric of an autocrat, not a democrat. She uses a good chunk of her speech to dismiss the various opposition parties not just as having different views to her, but of being fundamentally wrong and somehow opposed to the will of the people. The point of democracy is that because there is no single overriding, everyone-agrees-to-it ‘will of the people’ we find ways in which everyone gets their voice heard, and through those debates, challenges and discussions we come up with what’s best. Instead of that, we’ve instead got a Prime Minister who wants to sweep away and dissent and opposition as unpatriotic and invalid. It makes me quite scared for what comes next if she wins a majority in June.
Never mind, though, because we’ve got a united opposition party who’ll be able to take the fight to… Oh. Never mind. It does seem like we’re not to get the absolute civil war of mandatory reselection of all sitting MPs before the election, but they’re not looking like a party ready for the fight, or even wanting one. When Corbyn is promising that Labour want ‘a Brexit that works for you’ it’s hard not to feel dispirited.
This does feel very different from other election campaigns I’ve experienced, partly because everyone’s still trying to convince themselves it’s actually happening (and until Parliament votes to dissolve itself tomorrow, it technically isn’t). It’s an election where a lot of news that would normally come out in the pre-election period (who’s standing again, and who’s not) is going to happen in the next week or so, and meanwhile a lot of people are still out campaigning for the local elections in two weeks time. Everyone’s off-balance so look out for lots of little slip ups over the next couple of weeks as people get themselves into the game and works out their campaign plans. That this caught everyone by surprise suggests that even the Tories haven’t done too much pre-planning of it, as something would have leaked, but it’s probably a good time to buy shares in printing companies given all the election literature that’ll be coming out over the next few weeks.
One potentially interesting development is Theresa May ruling out taking part in any election debates, to which all the opposition leaders have responded to with disdain and called for them to carry on with an empty chair for her if necessary. It’s obvious why she doesn’t want to do them – no clear frontrunner in an election ever wants to take a risk like that – but pre-emptively ruling out participation in them could be a mistake. Before 2010, the traditional way around this was to say that you were open to the idea, then send in negotiators with so many demands that the broadcasters and other parties couldn’t agree to them, and watch the whole thing fall down. That might have worked this time, given the short timescale, but stating from the outside that you won’t do them after they’ve been a feature of the last two elections risks them going ahead without you. Maybe the plan is to have a debate where the opposition leaders all bicker amongst themselves, leaving May above the fray, but it feels to me that ‘we’ll need to discuss terms’ would have been a better response at this point than ‘we won’t do them’.
Come back tomorrow when we might have more of an idea what’s going on, or we might just have seen the whole election disappear as a damp squib when Parliament refuses to vote for it and May realises that voting for no confidence in herself to make it happen is just a bit too silly.