The news of a looming snap election in the UK took politicians, journalists and voters alike by surprise. After months of repeatedly claiming that there would be no general election before 2020 Prime Minister Theresa May, back from the Easter break, walked up to the lectern in front of 10 Downing Street and stunned the nation and its political class by pronouncing “I have just chaired a meeting of the Cabinet, where we agreed that the Government should call a general election, to be held on June 8.” The next day a huge majority of MPs (522-13) supported her plans and the election campaign has already begun.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, May has come under attack for an act than some call cynical party political game playing, while Dawn Butler, Labour MP for Brent Central, even claimed that “This election is Theresa May trying to rig democracy.”
While the latter statement quite obviously merely constitutes nonsensical hyperbole, and an attempt to deflect attention from the catastrophic state of the main opposition party, there nonetheless remains the question whether Theresa May was right in calling an early election.
If an election is called with the sole purpose of gaining party political advantage, then the case for it is rightly seen as rather weak. That cannot however mean that polls and the current state of parties should never play a role in scheduling an election. It is naïve to believe that politicians don’t factor this in when making such calls. After all, it is the foremost job of a politician to win power in order to then implement the programme they stood on.
So yes, of course – Theresa May called the election because she believes (and polls indicate that she isn’t mistaken) that the Tories will substantially increase their parliamentary majority. This is how the British democracy works, though.
Besides gaining seats for the Conservatives there are two main arguments in favour of having the UK going to the polls this year.
The first has been made for Theresa May by her political opponents from the moment she entered Downing Street: she is an 'unelected Prime Minister'. She has to implement a manifesto that she did not write, face criticisms of a lack of a democratic mandate, and will face huge obstacles when trying to push for even the smallest of reforms or an agenda of her own – all because internal and opposition critics can legitimately attack her for having inherited rather than earned herself her place in Downing Street. To give her a mandate of her own – and to test whether the British public support her and her policies – a general election is necessary.
The second, somewhat related, argument why the Prime Minister was right in calling the election is Brexit. Standing in front of that famous black door, Brexit was the reason May gave to legitimize her decision for an early election. She was right when saying that the referendum result of June 2016 is a mandate to leave the EU – but her erstwhile critics were equally justified when claiming that this mandate is rather vague and inconclusive.
The Prime Minister’s approach is a reasonable one within the boundaries of that expression of the 'will of the people', but not the only one possible. Fascinatingly, those who attacked her for pursuing a so called 'hard Brexit' without a mandate now criticize her for seeking exactly that.
Whoever wins the 2017 general election will from June onwards have not only the referendum but also a majority in parliament, voted for with the public knowing what Brexit strategy they would stand for, as mandate to pursue that course.
Brexit is an enormous challenge, certainly the greatest this country has faced in the 21st century. Theresa May did not really have a choice in calling an election, and she did the right thing.
A general election is never a risk-free exercise, though – Theresa May knows that. The Liberal Democrats could take enough seats from the Tories to result in a hung parliament – a situation that would bring exactly the chaos and uncertainty May is trying to avoid.
In a worst-case scenario, Jeremy Corbyn might even become prime minister, leading an eclectic coalition of the hard-left, nationalists who want to break up the Union, and Lib Dems who want to reverse the Brexit referendum.
However, looking at the respective strength of the parties, the polls and just about every indicator of electoral success, Theresa May fancied her odds and took the risk of calling an election. It is likely she will succeed and win a sizable majority in the House of Commons. With such a mandate for her domestic and international agenda, the Prime Minister will then be able to lead this country successfully for at least the next five years.