Wednesday, 19 April 2017

All cards to be in Mrs May's hands following British general election

British prime minister Theresa May has called for a general election to be held on 8 June (Photo: Channel Four News)

During a peaceful holiday spent with her family in rural England over Easter, Theresa May finally made up her mind. On her return to Downing Street, she was to drop a bombshell. Addressing the media, outside Number 10 she announced that she has proposed to hold a general election for 8 June next. The Fixed Term Parliament Act precludes prime ministers from calling general elections, so for now this is merely a proposal. But it is likely that Mrs May will get her way and Britain will go to the polls just two years since David Cameron took the Tories to victory with a slim majority at the last such electoral contest. 'Brexit' has changed the political background considerably and clearly this must have been a factor in helping Mrs May to change her mind (previously she had refused to countenance the holding of a general election, despite calls from some of her supporters to do so). A stroll in the countryside can do so much to clear one's head!

To be fair, I couldn't for the life of me understand why the vicar's daughter was holding back on calling a poll. From her perspective, the British government's and the Conservative Party's, it makes perfect sense to go to the country. No doubt Mrs May was mindful of Gordon Brown's fateful decision not to call an early general election when Labour still had a lead over the Conservatives during his first year as prime minister. In politics you must always make the most of your advantages. Mrs May, a particularly shrewd politician, obviously knows this well. She wants to press home her advantages. 

So what sort of outcome can we expect from a 2017 Westminster election? The most likely scenario to emerge in the early hours of 9 June will be a Conservative landslide, the likes not seen since the Thatcher era. For Britain's party of the Right, the glory days are roaring back into view. Mrs May will then be able to pursue her 'Brexit' negotiations with fresh vigour, safe in the knowledge that she will not have to go to the polls again until 2022 (barring a calamity). As has been noted by some commentators, it is the kind of 'Brexit' deal - hard or soft - that will help define Mrs May's premiership. Further to that, Britain's future economic performance, arising from the country's withdrawal from the EU, will present serious challenges for her government. Fighting an early general election means having one less worry on her  mind as the negotiations intensify.

For Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party he leads, the general election result will, almost certainly, be the disaster many are predicting. This will end his leadership and the only question left to be answered is: How heavily will Labour lose this time around? Mr Corbyn's divisive style of leadership reminds one of the trauma Britain's chief party of the Left went through during the Michael Foot era in the early 1980's. As I remember, Labour began it's long march back to reality once they had put the 1983 election result behind them. From that time on they became a more serious party of opposition (if not of government). Perhaps this year's election will have the same rehabilitative effect on Labour. Inadvertently, by calling this poll, Mrs May could be setting the Labour Party on the path to recovery. Once all the votes are counted we could, at last, see a more united Labour, despite losing many MP's in the process. Alternatively the blood letting could continue and we may witness the demise of the party founded by Keir Hardy. One senses Labour have reached a fork in the road and this election will determine the direction to be taken.

At the 2015 general election the Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out at Westminster. Since then they've installed a new leader in Tim Farron. Perhaps he is better suited as a constituency MP rather than party leader, nevertheless Mr Farron seems likeable and chatty - a refreshing contrast to the prime minister who has the manner of a puritan preacher at times. It will be of great interest to see how the Lib Dems fare this year. One of the factors which may play to the party's advantage is that - similar to their opposition to the Iraq war - they are the only national party at Westminster united in opposition to 'Brexit'. Despite this, I do not expect an enormous shift in their fortunes. Two years on from the last election won't bring about a transformation. Mr Farron needs more time and I really hope he gets it.

Another interesting area to watch at this year's election will be Scotland. Once a stronghold for the party, Labour are now an endangered species in this part of the UK. It is hard to see them recovering much ground in this year's contest. Meanwhile the Conservatives  - once almost wiped off the electoral map in Scotland - look set to benefit from the astute leadership of Ruth Davidson who has successfully re-branded the Tories north of the Tweed. They should make solid progress. For the governing party at the Holyrood parliament, the Scottish National Party (SNP), the 2017 poll will be important. Although this election will only return MP's to Westminster, it is an opportunity for the nationalists to further assert themselves at a critical time for their political cause. First minister and SNP leader at Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon, will no doubt use the election campaign as a platform to gain popular support for holding another referendum on Scottish independence. Incidentally, Angus Robertson MP (the SNP leader at Westminster) has proven to be a nimble performer in the House of Commons and   is often a thorn in the prime minister's side. It will be good to see him returned after 8 June, if fate allows.

In Northern Ireland the announcement of a general election could not have come at a more chaotic moment in the province's political history. The voters are, no doubt, suffering election fatigue (this will be Ulster's third poll in just two short years!) but for the political parties it will be a fresh opportunity to build support. The DUP, under the leadership of Arlene Foster, had a terrible result in the recent assembly elections. For Nigel Dodds MP - the party's leader at Westminster - the challenge should be a good deal easier. The fortunes of the SDLP, once a force to be reckoned with on the nationalist side, could improve after a long period of decline. Due to their abstensionist policy, Sinn Fein never really register at Westminster elections. For them it will all be about the size of the vote that they are able to attract. Robin Swann, the newly elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, says he wants to see  a return to the healthy state his party enjoyed back in the 1980's. But at this point it is hard to see that being achieved. The wider problem - beyond mere electoral battles - in Northern Ireland is of course all about national allegiances. Having a functioning executive run solely by the DUP and Sinn Fein has proven to be an impossible task. Both sides are not reading off the same sheet, moreover they have separate policies - not based on ideology but rather on national identity. Have you ever tried to charge a Samsung phone using a Nokia charger? Of course it simply won't work. That is the problem with putting the DUP and Sinn Fein together in government. It is difficult to see any short term political progress without a return to direct rule. A fresh election is not likely to bring about significant change to the problems facing Ulster and it's people.

Back at the hustings it would seem that this year's poll will be the last stand for Ukip. They were unable to progress at the 2015 general election and I do not expect them to make any this time either. The party no longer has  an MP (Douglas Carswell recently left Ukip) and Paul Nuttall's failure to get elected last February at the Stoke by-election has been a serious blow to their morale. The big problem for Ukip has been the 'Brexit' referendum result. That has taken the wind out of their sails and the only hope left for them may be to try and pick off a few Labour seats. Most though, I suspect, do not believe that Ukip are serious politicians and that is the biggest obstacle facing them.

By the morning of 9 June, Mrs May should be in an immeasurably stronger position than she is in now. She will need that strength of hand to deal with the enormity of the challenge posed by 'Brexit'. Fighting the general election campaign is the easy bit. The next phase, one suspects, will be much harder to manage for Britain's Conservative prime minister and her government. The road ahead will only get tougher.