George Parker: Why a general election could be Theresa May's least worst option

Posted On: 
17th January 2019

Conservative MPs, voters and even political journalists don't want to hear it, but going back to the country could be the Prime Minister's only escape from the trench warfare at Westminster, writes George Parker 

Theresa May outside Number Ten last night
Credit: 
PA

Don’t tell Brenda from Bristol but an intriguing new rumour is sweeping Westminster: that Theresa May could try to extricate herself from the Brexit morass by going back to the people. Not in the form of a second referendum, but in a general election.

When you suggest the idea to most politicians they recoil. “Noooo,” said one cabinet minister in a low moan of despair. An adviser to Mrs May looked intently at me when I suggested the idea: “Look into my eyes: do you really want an election?”

To be honest, even political journalists who live for the kind of drama thrown up by an election have had just about enough excitement for now, thanks. Perhaps that is why the idea has received so little media attention.

However in the last few days cabinet ministers have started discussing the idea. One minister says: “When you have this kind of chaos, things normally end up with a general election.”

Meanwhile William Hague, the former Tory leader who correctly predicted that Theresa May would hold an election in 2017, told City figures this week that the media were “underplaying the chances of an election in the coming weeks”.

Could it happen? Technically, yes. The Fixed Term Parliament Act sets the next election date in 2022, but it can be short-circuited if two-thirds of MPs vote for an early poll. If all opposition MPs voted for an election – likely – then the government payroll vote would easily get it over the line.

But the arguments against it are compelling. Firstly Mrs May has indicated she will not lead her party into the next election – although she did specify that she had a 2022 election in mind – and her record in fighting elections is not exactly stellar.

Secondly, she would presumably be asking the voters to approve a Brexit strategy – perhaps with a few tweaks – that has just been rejected by 230 votes in the Commons. Would the 118 Tory MPs who rejected it this week campaign for it on the election stump?

The third argument is, what would be the point? “Unless you’re going to win by a landslide, which we’re not, or unless you’re going to completely refresh the Conservative parliamentary party, which we won’t, what’s the point?” one senior Tory said. “You end up in the same place but waste three months.”

Put the idea to Mrs May’s team and they smile wanly. “We’re not keen,” says one ally. However Downing Street adamantly rejected Mr Hague’s assertions in 2017 that Britain was heading for an early election before holding one three months later.

What would be the advantage to Mrs May? The obvious point is that it may turn out to be the least worst option facing the prime minister as she tries to find a Brexit solution that will fly in Brussels, can command a Commons majority and does not end up with a Corn Laws-style split in her party.

The Conservatives could campaign as the party with a clear commitment to deliver Brexit, but along lines that ensured a smooth and orderly economic transition.

Holding an election would also put Jeremy Corbyn in an awkward spot: would Labour fight a Leave or Remain campaign? Mr Corbyn says he would promise to deliver a better sort of Brexit –  would negotiate a better deal in Brussels – but would his overwhelmingly pro-EU party let him?

It is possible that Mr Corbyn would be forced by his party, including the pro-Remain Momentum group, to promise a second EU referendum. So Mrs May would campaign as the champion of the 52%, casting Labour as an ultra-left party willing to overturn the will of the people.

That is not to say an election is even remotely at the front of the minds of people in Downing Street at the moment, but one can see why getting out into the fresh air of the country might start to appeal after another few weeks of trench warfare in the fetid atmosphere of Westminster.

Oh yes, one other thing. In spite of the complete chaos in the Tory party, there is one other small factor: most opinion polls have the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck; some have given Mrs May a lead of up to 6 per cent. Not that you can rely on the polls, of course.

George Parker is Political Editor of the Financial Times