“Prime Minister, what was it about your 20-point lead in the opinion polls that made you call an early election?”.
The question was posed jokingly to the Prime Minister in the days that followed her announcement of an election on 8 June. Indeed, the fear of the question with its implication of self-serving opportunism, almost made May stick with her original intention to wait until 2020.
Senior ministers, including Philip Hammond and David Davis, had been urging May to call an early election. She was reluctant to do so partly because of her previous declarations that she would not call one. She did not want to wreck her image of reliable trustworthiness.
What changed her mind had little to do with the polls. Obviously she would not have been tempted if she was twenty points behind. The polls gave her permission to make the leap. But her motivation was to secure a mandate of her own. That objective provides a guide as to what will follow the election.
The most traumatic sequence of her leadership was the budget in March and its aftermath, not least the speedy panic stricken u turn on the tax rise for the self-employed. May and her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, had overlooked the commitment not to raise national insurance contributions in the Conservatives’ 2015 election manifesto.
For May yet another constraint arising from the Cameron/Osborne manifesto was the final straw. She had already been admonished for having no mandate for grammar schools, her industrial strategy, her plans to place workers’ representatives on boards and her determination to intervene in ‘failing’ markets. Now she had no mandate for one of the central proposals in the budget. She started to ache for her own mandate.
This is May’s party and this is her election. For a shy public performer, the campaign must be an odd experience
If the polls are correct May will have the space to make some unpopular moves in the immediate aftermath of the election. Freed from the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto, taxes will rise. If he wishes to do so Hammond will be able to reintroduce the tax rise for the self-employed without worrying about the 2015 manifesto.
More widely May will seek to flesh out her own distinctive view of Toryism, or at least the view of her special adviser, Nick Timothy. She has repeated often that it is time to “recognise the good that government can do”. This is what some regard as her ‘Ed Miliband streak’. She speaks about the state as a benevolent force in a way the Cameron/Osborne or indeed Tony Blair never did.
Her proposal to cap energy prices is a direct lift from the Miliband era. The former Labour leader has to pinch himself at times as he hears a Tory Prime Minister putting arguments he advanced to the sounds of loud jeers in the media and parts of his party. At least tonally this is a new phase for the Conservative party.
The fact that David Cameron is writing his memoirs in a new garden shed and George Osborne is editing a newspaper, both out of parliament two years after winning an election, are potent symbols of the change.
This is May’s party and this is her election. For a shy public performer, the campaign must be an odd experience. Her name is everywhere as if she were a rock star. Her party’s name is virtually nowhere to be seen. Assuming the opinion polls are correct she will be in a commanding position after the election. It will have been her victory.
Her command will be constrained by the mountainous challenge of Brexit. Early last year I had a brief talk with Cameron. He was exhausted in the midst of his ‘renegotiation’ with the rest of the EU. Cameron’s talks involved late nights in Prague, Warsaw and elsewhere. Negotiating Brexit will be five hundred times more complicated for May, a supreme test of stamina, focus and guile.
She will be navigating the tricky terrain with the Labour Party in a febrile state. Jeremy Corbyn is fighting a ‘Bernie Sanders’ style campaign, making May’s support for the state seem puny. But one of Corbyn’s many problems is that there are few weighty Labour advocates making his case. His campaign is compared often with the one contested by Michael Foot in 1983. This is unfair to Foot. He had been a senior cabinet minister as had his deputy, Denis Healey.
The shadow cabinet then was full of heavyweights. This is not the case now. Their hope is that this is the era of the outsiders and change. But in the UK, voters appear to be opting for Brexit rather than socialism as their chosen vehicle for ‘change’. As such this election is partly a repeat of the referendum but this time the governing party is campaigning for Brexit, another big leap from the ancient history of the Cameron era.
Politics is moving speedily at the moment and will continue to do so for the next five years.
By Steve Richards