When Theresa May replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister midway through last year she instantly faced, and rejected, questions over whether she would call an early election. Traditionally Prime Ministers who take over from their predecessor without being elected are dogged by questions about votes and mandates often with negative endings such as Gordon Brown’s after replacing Tony Blair. May herself labelled Brown of "running scared of the people's verdict," in 2007 after Brown became leader without an election.
Theresa May has been steadfast in her commitment to not holding an early election and it is understandable as she faces little resistance or pressure from an opposition party. However this pledge will be harder to commit to if the Conservatives continue to ignore manifesto pledges and promises made in 2015. If it becomes clear that Theresa May is operating from a different song sheet than was presented in the last election she will face public perception problems and media pressure that may be too strong to withstand and an election will have to be called.
Pledges? What Pledges?
The biggest recent controversy was, as the Liberal Democrats christened it, the 'omNICshambles' budget from Philip Hammond. The decision to raise class 4 national insurance tax for self-employed workers was a major unforced error as it directly contradicted a pledge, turned in to law, not to raise national insurance tax. The public perception of this was hugely negative and the media criticised and opposed heavily. This was not the first manifesto pledge that has been broken and should they continue to fall the pressure will mount.
Another pledge that appeared prominently in the Conservative manifesto is the promise to stay in the single market. This was included as David Cameron, confident of winning a European referendum, never thought he would have to consider breaking it. Despite the loss of Remain, Brexit did not mean it was impossible to keep to that manifesto pledge however Theresa May has insisted that the UK will be not just be leaving the single market but the customs union too, at most paying to gain access to certain areas of the market. This has gone relatively unnoticed but it is another decision by Theresa May to ignore what was promised and make a break from 2015.
The dropping of a manifesto pledge on the single market has been a thorny issue even for some prominent Conservative MPs including Nicky Morgan who said in October: “The Conservative party manifesto, on which we were elected only 17 months ago, has a very clear statement in it about ‘we say yes to the single market’ and it talks about ‘we will safeguard British interests in the single market’."
The manifesto from 2015 also made a firm commitment to having no new grammar schools. Once again Theresa May looks determined to break this Conservative pledge and is aiming for potentially hundreds of new grammar schools although there is resistance to this from within her own party and in education more generally.
It took just days following Theresa May’s confirmation as Prime Minister to drop another major manifesto pledge as Philip Hammond is no longer required to reach a budget surplus by 2020, something that played a large part in getting the Conservatives a majority in 2015. This was dropped with very little fanfare but confirmed that another in a series of economic targets were going to be missed and that Theresa May was going to run her government in a radically different way.
A matter of time
The tax pledges, the promises on the economy and education were major parts of the Conservative manifesto and can also take much responsibility for returning a Conservative majority in 2015. As Theresa May drops pledge after pledge it will become more and more difficult to avoid the calls for an early election.
As it becomes clearer that she is operating in her own way, paying little attention to pledges that saw her party elected, questions around her mandate and authority to make the changes she wants to make will become louder and louder. In normal political times an effective opposition would be reminding the government and the public in particular about the promises being dropped but given the current situation it could buy Theresa May some extra time and space.
As changes are made and a manifesto is increasingly side-lined the media could force the Prime Ministers hand as it did so successfully in reversing the self-employed tax rise. Prime Ministers can only avoid elections for so long and Theresa May might be wise to learn the lesson of Gordon Brown in that the longer you wait the worse the outcome may be.