A SURPRISE General Election in Britain is certain to gift victory to Theresa May’s Conservative Party, and will as reliably hand Labour its worst loss since 1935; whilst strengthening May’s hand in negotiations over the UK’s exit from the EU has been given as an ostensible pretext, this election is about poleaxing an opposition led by an irrelevant radical socialist and extending the Tories’ hold on office. On both counts, it will succeed convincingly.
It’s an unexpected post from me this morning, as I try to juggle other commitments and obligations with the desire to maintain a regular flow of comment through this column, but if anything could shake a spare hour free to publish something, my favourite political hobby-horse — electoral politics in the United Kingdom — is just the thing to do it.
By now many readers will know that over the past 36 hours, an extraordinary political heist has been engineered by British PM Theresa May; after nine months in office marked by incessant refusals to call an election, and guarantees that the House of Commons would run its full term until 2020, Mrs May has — against a backdrop of 20-point leads over Labour across most reputable opinion polls, and in the face of pleas from her MPs to capitalise on the apparently sunny electoral weather the Tories currently enjoy — called an election for 8 June after a seven-week campaign.
I have held off posting for an extra day pending the result of a vote in the House of Commons, which was needed to set aside the Fixed Terms Act insisted upon by the Liberal Democrats as part of their price for installing the Tories (then led by David Cameron) in office after the inconclusive election of 2010; that ballot was carried overnight in the Commons by a 522-13 margin, removing the only hurdle Mrs May faced in calling a snap election.
Remarkably, the opposition Labour Party — facing annihilation under the pointless leadership of widely disliked radical socialist Jeremy Corbyn — voted for the motion, and frankly, there is something abjectly pathetic about the sight of lemmings lining up to leap gleefully over a cliff. More on Corbyn and Labour shortly.
But first things first: for fellow junkies of British politics, the Telegraph is publishing some excellent rolling coverage that can be accessed here; a small selection of other content can be accessed here and here — we recommend The Spectator as the best boutique source of coverage during the campaign — whilst an excellent consolidated psephological resource I’ve grown well acquainted with over the years, operated by YouGov’s Anthony Wells, is a handy reference point and can be found here, but of course there is plenty of other good material in the market (or keep an eye on my Twitter feed to see who I’m following and what I’m reading from the UK @theredandblue).
I’ve struggled a bit to think of the last time an incumbent government looked as unassailably certain to smash its opponent into a thousand little pieces as Mrs May’s does.
Margaret Thatcher’s landslide in 1983 comes to mind, as does the re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984; closer to home, it’s hard to ascribe the same upfront inevitability to John Howard’s 2001 and 2004 triumphs, for the Coalition spent much of 2001 looking like losing, and started the 2004 campaign trailing in the polls. State governments led by Labor in Queensland in 2001 and Victoria in 2002, and by the Liberal Party in Western Australia in 2013, are perhaps nearer the mark.
But the Conservative Party begins this election campaign, on average, nearly 20 percentage points ahead of Labour once the various individual polls are examined and aggregated; in Britain’s first past the post election system, this lead — rounded to 43 to 26 — suggests a thumping Tory victory if replicated on 8 June, and it should be observed that 43 to 26 amounts to a better position than that recorded by Mrs Thatcher in 1983, which resulted in a 144-seat majority and almost 400 seats (397 in fact) in the 650-seat Commons.
Where the polls are concerned, the Tory position ranges from 38% in yesterday’s Opinium survey (which almost identically replicates the actual result of the 2015 election) to 46% from ICM and ComRes. The Opinium poll yesterday is the only survey tabulated in the past ten weeks by any of Britain’s five major polling houses to find Conservative support below 40%, and it will be a sobering fact for anyone looking for a Labour victory to know that at every election since (and including) 1992, opinion polls have consistently overstated eventual support for Labour whilst understating the Tory vote.
So far in 2017, just five of the 36 published opinion polls on Westminster voting intention have found support for the Conservative Party below 40%, and none have found the Tory vote at levels at or below the 37% that delivered a slim majority two years ago. By contrast, just four of those 36 surveys recorded Labour travelling better than the 29% it recorded in 2015, and of those, three found the improvement to be a solitary percentage point.
In other words, Labour is set for the belting of its life: worse than 1983, and worse than anything it suffered in the 1950s; I’m looking at the Tory win of 1935 (which saw Labour emerge with 154 seats in a 615-seat House of Commons) as the benchmark for expectations, although the 1931 election, which was even better for the Conservatives (470 seats), looks a bit silly in terms of a precedent this time. I do, however, think the Tories stand an excellent chance of recording a 400+ seat haul on 8 June.
The pretext offered by Mrs May to justify the election — that a stronger and renewed mandate would in turn strengthen Britain’s hand at upcoming negotiations over the UK’s pending exit from the European Union — is easy enough to accept, but only on the surface; the truth (as her opponents noted yesterday) is that even with their present slender majority, the Conservatives have faced no parliamentary refusal to trigger the “Brexit process,” and that EU bureaucrats are likely to be just as hostile toward the British position irrespective of whether Mrs May holds office with a majority of 15 or 150.
The real reasons for this election are more base, and not particularly difficult to divine.
Cameron must have been unable to believe his luck two years ago, when the defeated Labour Party chose as its leader a radical socialist of the far Left whose 32-year parliamentary career had thitherto been entirely spent on the backbench; the Tories must have been even more disbelieving when the new opposition leader chose, as his shadow Chancellor (the equivalent of a shadow Treasurer in Australia) another arch-Leftist with decades of experience in the political wilderness, John McDonnell. Both men are, among other things, apologists for the IRA, with little discernible connection or relevance to mainstream British society or to the majority of the people living in it.
One abortive attempt to get rid of Corbyn last year by rebellious Labour MPs had the unintended consequence of strengthening his position; another attempt has been rumoured ever since. The temptation to lock Corbyn in place with an election date has clearly proven irresistible to Mrs May and her strategists, who — unlike their Coalition counterparts in Australia last year, where Bill Shorten was concerned — will now “do” Corbyn properly in such a fashion as to kill him off as a political force altogether.
Even on this point, Labour is proving to be the gift that keeps giving; faced with a slaughter, Corbyn has made it known he plans to remain leader after the looming massacre on 8 June. That event can only be exacerbated by what is already becoming a stream of Labour MPs, flatly opposed to Corbyn’s leadership and disgusted by the direction in which he has taken their party, who are refusing to stand again in their seats — and offering free, vicious and very public character assessments of their leader on the way out the door.
May, like Cameron before her, has been the beneficiary of an economy that has proven surprisingly robust; for much of the past five years the British economy has been the fastest growing in Europe, and at one point was the fastest growing of all OECD nations (including Australia). Predictions of a sharp downturn in the aftermath of last year’s successful referendum to leave the EU have consistently failed to eventuate, although with a growing number of economists forecasting a downturn in the next 18 months (which, to be fair, would affect the rest of Europe as well), going to the polls now rather than in three years’ time makes sense: especially when there are other factors, such as the EU negotiations, which can be used to provide the veneer of legitimacy for doing so.
With the Scottish Nationalist Party’s stranglehold on Scottish seats showing little sign of being broken (apart from an outside chance of Tories picking up an extra couple of seats north of the border), Labour’s scope to make gains at all is severely limited; in a region that traditionally provided a bedrock for British Labour, it currently polls just 10% in Scotland: a situation once unthinkable.
Elsewhere, the Conservatives’ grip on the country appears so unshakeable that I’ve seen credible modelling to suggest the Tories may be on track to win a string of seats in coal mining areas in northern Wales — an outcome, if it eventuates, that was once as unthinkable as Labour being wiped out of Scotland — and if they can take seats from Labour in the Midlands and major centres outside London (Birmingham, Manchester, even Sheffield), the Tories’ victory on 8 June will be a massive one indeed.
The one potential cloud on the horizon in terms of the scale of their win — some unforeseen, colossally destructive (albeit unlikely) campaign gaffe notwithstanding — lies in the dozens of seats the Conservatives won from the Liberal Democrats in 2015; many of these sit on razor-thin margins, and a lot of them were harvested from regions (Devon, Cornwall, Somerset) that long remained good for the Lib-Dems (and the Liberals before them) when the rest of the country abandoned them. Should the Lib-Dems win a solid number of these seats back, it will obviously dull the magnitude of the Tory triumph: not enough to stop it, but perhaps just enough to deny Mrs May the invincibility enjoyed by Mrs Thatcher after 1983.
With seven weeks to go, I will aim to include comment on the British election as we go: as well as keeping an eye on what’s happening here in Australia, and on that score, I should be back within the next day or so.
But if ever there was a case of the planets aligning perfectly for a jaunty field trip to face the voters, Britain’s Conservative Party enjoys exactly that: and whilst it’s never over until the votes are counted, a huge win for Mrs May and the Tories — mirrored by defeat and humiliation for Labour — are in no way in any doubt.
If anyone wants to take a shot at me for making such an unqualified and unilateral prediction, just hold off until 9 June. I’m sure, on that day, you might have second thoughts about doing so.