Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The UK Election

There can be no doubt that Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election is a masterly one. Her political career, to date, in the matter of Brexit has been one in which she consistently outflanked and outmanoeuvred her opponents. She has also been lucky, both in the failure of any coherent opposition to her strategy, and in the way she came to power.

When we look back to June last year and the Referendum, it is notable that while Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party led a very lacklustre campaign, her own light shone even more dimly,

Although she was nominally on the side of David Cameron and the Remain movement, her support was largely confined to private occasions, as was discovered by a later leak in which she addressed bankers including Goldman Sachs. But that only was revealed in October 2016, by which time she was in place as Prime Minister and wholly committed to Brexit.

When Cameron fell, she was close enough to the centre to be able to swing the other way and rebrand herself as committed to the people’s decision. Like Harold Wilson with his “white heat of the technological revolution”, she cast herself in the role of favourite for Prime Minister without saying anything substantial.

"The campaign was fought... and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door... Brexit means Brexit".

The first round saw off all but two candidates, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom. Again luck played a part: Michael Gove had so brutally betrayed Boris Johnson that his chances of becoming Prime Minister were as slim as Judas being appointed Pope.

Andrea Leadsom, meanwhile, played the mother card, which spectacularly backfired in the implication that somehow motherhood made a woman better suited to the role of Prime Minister, and that May was deficient in this important regard. It also transpired that her CV may have been massaged to look better than it was.

Gove retired to the backbenches and the world of journalism, becoming a regular columnist for The Times, also contributing to many other papers, but managing to avoid the opprobrium heaped upon George Osborne.

So May took the crown, but did not hold a general election. Cleverly she appointed strong leave campaigners to high office - Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, David Davis as Brexit Secretary, and Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary.

She refused calls for a General Election, and pressed ahead with plans to trigger Article 50, first facing off a court battle which the government lost, which gave Parliament sovereign right to approve any Brexit bill. However, she swiftly recovered, presenting to the Commons and Lords a bill so devoid of substance that it again gave her a free hand.

It was at that point that a coalition of the SNP, of Labour, of Liberals and of Conservatives opposed to the bill could have made changes of substance in directing the post-Article 50 policy. That they did not was almost entirely because of Jeremy Corbyn who ordered his Party to vote in favour of the bill. If he had gone the other way, concessions could have been made, but he himself was also now openly committed to Brexit. It was left to the Lords to attempt to introduce some mitigating amendments to direct the shape of Brexit.

After that was complete, nothing could stop May from triggering Article 50, which she duly did, setting out a timetable for negotiations which was promptly derailed by the European leaders acting together, ensuring that trade talks come later rather than parallel, in negotiating.

That could have led to problems with her premiership, as some of the predictions of the remain camp appeared to be realised, but it was here that she pulled a masterstroke, and called a general election. To call it before triggering article 50 would have left that as a question on the election table for the electorate to reconsider, but by doing so after triggering article 50, she is in a much stronger position. What is more, she can be almost certain of a 2/3rds majority needed to gain an election, from her own party and from Labour.

The SNP’s call for independence will be weakened if they lose any seats, and having a high point where they have all but three seats in the Commons over Scotland, they are almost certain to lose to other parties.

Her own critics are also silenced, as they will have to fight an election on a mandate pro-Brexit, post-Article 50 where the best they can hope for is to stress the need for a softer Brexit in terms of trade, immigration and services. That is certainly also the position of the Liberal party.

Labour meanwhile is a mess, having managed to lose a bi-election to the Conservatives when it opposition, and in a seat formerly held by Labour. No one can unseat Corbyn, but it is unlikely that he will lead the party to victory; indeed labour may see the same degree of devastation that it did under Michael Foot’s leadership.

UKIP meanwhile, will almost certainly go for as hard a Brexit as possible. If they fail to achieve any real breakthrough, and their rag-tag party, riven by internal struggles, is not likely to do so, then they give May the opportunity to take that as a rejection by the country of a hard Brexit, should she so wish.

The only real question is whether she can keep up the momentum in the same way that Wilson did, and get to power before anyone realises that she still is being vague on details. Expect then a manifesto which sets out certain markers along the road to Brexit, but in such a way that diversions can be signposted if required.

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