George Parker: Did 'mandate envy' prompt Theresa May to call an early election?

Posted On: 
20th April 2017

Theresa May hopes the snap election will give her the strong mandate she needs to secure a Brexit deal. But her decision is not risk free, writes George Parker 

Theresa May during her first rally of the election campaign.
PA Images

In the end, the opportunity was too good to waste. After months of insisting that a snap general election would be “self-serving” and create instability, Theresa May has thrown the political pack of cards up in the air.

Much has been made of how May took the decision in the fresh spring air of Snowdonia while walking with her husband, Philip – a man steeped in Tory politics and whose role as an adviser to the prime minister should not be underestimated.

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But in the end, all the lights were flashing green. Even given May’s inherent caution, was she going to be the Tory prime minister who made the same fatal mistake as Gordon Brown in 2007, dithering on the election threshold?

May has framed the election in terms of Brexit. “Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the European Union,” she explained.

Brexit lay at the heart of her decision, but there were many other factors. Not least were a slew of opinion polls giving her a 20-point lead over Labour: no other Tory prime minister since 1945 has entered an election with such a lead.

Sir Lynton Crosby, who will run the Tory campaign, and Nick Timothy, her powerful co-chief of staff, were among those urging her to run now, to strengthen her position on Brexit and to win a fresh mandate.

May knew that policies including the reintroduction of grammar schools, tax reform and a social care revolution would be much easier to push through (especially in the House of Lords) if they were endorsed in a general election.

There was a nagging fear in No 10 that Jeremy Corbyn might quit after the 4 May elections, offering Labour the chance to appoint a more electorally potent leader.

And May also feared that the Crown Prosecution Service might bring charges over electoral irregularities in a number of Conservative seats at the 2015 election, triggering a series of byelections.

Even the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – cited by many commentators as a major obstacle to an early poll – proved to be no barrier at all, once Labour had reluctantly embraced an early election. In the end, May’s choice seemed a no-brainer.

May says that a big victory on 8 June will allow her to strike a tough bargain in Brexit talks: there is little doubt that the prime minister will campaign Britannia ready to take on all comers in Brussels.

But there are clues everywhere that May will use a strong mandate for another purpose: to allow her to manage Brexit in a smooth way, including presiding over a transition period in which EU rules may continue to apply to Britain for several years.

After the smooth activation of Article 50 in late March – and the measured reaction in Brussels – May took stock of the timetable ahead. She feared that in the final negotiations leading up to Brexit in March 2019 she might be “over a barrel”, as EU leaders used a looming 2020 British election as a weapon against her.

If May wins on 8 June, her electoral horizon will extend until June 2022. That will allow her to strike a tough bargain on Brexit, while also giving her a three-year window to oversee a transition deal leading up to the ratification of an EU/UK trade deal.

May has already hinted this transition deal might include continued free movement. It might also include continued EU budget contributions and a role for the European Court of Justice. So much easier to manage if she does not have to hold an election until 2022. A strong personal mandate would also insulate her from criticism from the most hardline eurosceptics in her party.

The prime minister’s motives have been hinted at since she called the snap election. She told The Sun that a new mandate would make her “freer” to negotiate the best deal for Britain. Amber Rudd, home secretary, said “potential compromises” with the EU might be easier after an election.

That is not to say that May is abandoning the key objectives of Brexit: control over borders, money and laws. Indeed the Daily Mail was briefed that the Tory manifesto would have a “triple lock” to guarantee those three points. But the election does give her more room to engineer a smooth departure.

One Tory MP speculated that May might also have wanted her own mandate to allow her to go head-to-head with a newly elected president of France and chancellor of Germany. “There may have been a case of mandate envy,” the MP said. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Will May win that new mandate? Given the success of the journalistic profession (guided by the pollsters) in predicting the results of the general elections in 2010 and 2015, let alone the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, it would be pointless to make predictions.

Of course we think we know the answer. But can Jeremy Corbyn somehow transfer his campaigning success in Labour internal elections on to the national stage, campaigning as the underdog taking on the mighty establishment? The US presidential election suggests it is not an entirely hopeless strategy.

What about the Liberal Democrats? People say that they might do well in Remain seats like Kingston and Twickenham, but I predict they will do well against the Tories in seats that were resolutely for Leave – including those in Somerset and Cornwall.

As May said herself: “In every election there is a risk.” The 2017 election might look straightforward, but such contests never are.


George Parker is political editor of the Financial Times