‘By calling an election three years before it was scheduled, Theresa May has delayed Brexit and saved Labour and the Liberal Democrats’
Making predictions about how politics will look after this year’s general election — when writing just as the election has been called — is a foolish undertaking. Nevertheless, I will make two perhaps unexpected forecasts.
By calling an election three years before it was scheduled under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Theresa May has delayed the effective implementation of Brexit and has saved the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. These may seem very odd things to claim. After all, the rationale for calling an early election is so that the May government has a free hand to implement Brexit and can push through all the necessary legislation with a renewed mandate and increased majority. The Conservatives look as if they are heading for their biggest majority since 1983. Yet there are strong reasons for believing this is the case.
With the invoking of Article 50 at the end of March, the clock was started on a two-year period leading to the UK’s exit from the European Union in the spring of 2019. The only way this period can be extended is if the EU member states unanimously agree — which with the current state of relations seems rather unlikely. It is also most unlikely that other EU member states will still want us as a full member at the time of the European Parliament elections in June 2019 and the appointment of a new Commission immediately after that. So it seems we are set to exit in 2019 — but that does not mean that the final terms will have been agreed by then. Every process in the history of EU institutions has taken longer than it was meant to, and there is no reason for thinking that Brexit will be different. In all likelihood, all that will have been agreed by 2019 will be transitional arrangements with the final settlement still to be negotiated.
Why does an early election make this more likely? If the Conservatives had been looking at a 2020 election, May would have wanted to ensure that Brexit would have been a settled matter by then — and that the Tories could argue that what the British people had voted for on June 23, 2016, had been delivered. With an election now — on the specific issue, as the Conservatives want to frame it, of implementing and pushing through Brexit — that pressure is off. Now the May government will have an extra two years to negotiate the final terms. The following election will not be scheduled until 2022; if the final settlement is in place by 2021 there will be plenty of time to show that Brexit has not had the dire consequences that the Remainers claimed it would, and indeed there will be time for the inevitable transitional hiccups to look as if they are on the way to being overcome. So an election called to push through Brexit is in fact likely to delay its effective implementation.
How can a thumping Conservative majority save the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties? To take the more straightforward case, by having an election now the Lib Dems — pronounced all but dead when reduced to eight seats at the 2015 election — have a tailor-made cause, stymying Brexit either by stopping it altogether or by watering it down to such a degree that it is Brexit in name only, with which to galvanise their potential supporters. There is clearly a substantial constituency of angry Remainers that the Lib Dems can capture with a rousing call to arms for the European integrationist cause. It would be no surprise if the party tripled or quadrupled its tally of seats at the election. If the election had not been held until 2020, Brexit would in all likelihood have been a fait accompli and the Remain message would have had much less emotional resonance. It would have been much harder for the Lib Dems to make an emotional case for why they continued to be needed.
Labour are likely to go down to their worst defeat since 1983. They will run on a similarly left-wing manifesto to the one described by the late and unlamented Gerald Kaufman in 1983 as the longest suicide note in history. Moderates on the National Executive Committee are likely to nod through the inclusion of all kinds of leftist aspirations for inclusion in this year’s manifesto just as they did in 1983. The reason? Many will think: if the current leadership want to run on this kind of platform, let’s show them where this once again gets them.
So how does this save the Labour party? Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left supporters in Momentum have not yet had time to deselect sitting moderate MPs. To avoid a wholesale revolt by those MPs — and with only three weeks between the calling of the election and parliamentary nominations closing — all sitting MPs have been automatically reselected. Some MPs will voluntarily stand down because they are so out of sympathy with the current regime and the likely Labour manifesto — at the time of writing, Tom Blenkinsop has already done so — while others will not have the stomach for five more long years of opposition. Most will, however, remain in place; and as Labour is unlikely to gain any seats — with the possible exception of a few in Scotland as the allure of the Scot Nats wears thin — those that survive will form the next parliamentary Labour party.
After an election in which many of their colleagues have gone down to defeat, it is hard to believe that they will be any more enamoured of Corbyn than they are now. Corbyn will have to resign as leader and so long as the election rules are not changed — and Labour moderates will fight tooth and nail to prevent this from happening — another far-left candidate who is not an incumbent is very unlikely to obtain the nomination of 15 per cent of the parliamentary party needed to stand. Labour moderates will surely not be so foolish as to repeat the mistake of nominating a candidate they would not vote for just to create a broader field. The stage would be set for a leadership election between Chuka Umunna, Keir Starmer and — if he returns to parliament — a rehabilitated, post-Strictly Ed Balls or his wife, Yvette Cooper. Labour would be back on the road to sanity. Even Labour members may begin to realise that marching to the far left is marching to oblivion — although some may instead choose to embrace a new Dolchstosslegende.
We won’t have to wait too long to know if my hunches turn out to be accurate.