I have wondered for some time whether Theresa May’s promise not to try for an early general election was a ploy. The thinking goes like this: you say you won’t hold one so that you don’t fall into the speculation trap Gordon Brown did nearly a decade ago – yet it is always there if you decide the time is right. However, her advisors have now said too much for this to remain a realistic possibility:
“There will be no election, the public does not have an appetite for it. They want our politicians to get on and do their job.”
She has gone too far down the path of holding the next election in 2020 to reverse. Of course, in a post-opposition world, even the impossible is possible, but I now simply can’t see May pulling the trigger before the Fixed Term Parliament Act deems necessary.
While I have spoken previously about how waiting until 2020 for the next election could make some strategic sense for the Conservatives (a Labour split looks unlikely; Corbyn hangs on for three and a half more years, grinding his and his party’s popularity down more with each passing month; the new boundaries in effect) it still does offer the centre-left a real opportunity. If May were to push for a general election next Spring it would definitely be a massacre for Labour no matter what. Putting it off until 2020 at least gives the centre-left a theoretical opportunity to get themselves together.
May is betting that this won’t happen – she’ll probably be shown to be correct on this one. But imagine if after Corbyn wins with over 60% of the vote in a few weeks time and as a result Labour really do split. Now imagine a decent leader of the opposition, suddenly giving May a hard time for once. Think about a situation in which a centre-left opposition was able to hold May to real account for the Brexit proceedings, which as we’ve seen from the G20 summit are going to be ropey in the extreme. I still don’t think such a party could win a 2020 election – but it could put itself in prime position to win in 2025. As opposed to getting crushed to a point that it would take several elections just to get back into contention, which is what it’s looking like now.
In other words, May’s decision to hold off on calling an election should be galvanising for the centre-left. However, as we’ll see played out in front of us in Liverpool in under three weeks’ time, it is unlikely to have this effect.