This is a cross-post from All That Is Solid
If you were feeling nostalgic for this summer’s Brexit chaos, the last couple of days should have provided you a fix. The High Court judgement that – rightly – stipulated the requirement for Article 50 to come to the Commons before its trigger threw the government into a panic. It also reminded us of the utter stupidity of senior Conservative politicians . Not having read the judgement, let alone understood it, morons like David Davies and IDS have paraded into the studios to decry this “assault” on the referendum result. This greenlit the unhinged editorial suites of the rightwing press to parade contrived outrage befitting the froth of a Nazi rag. The Mailproviding a new low in their grim history as Britain’s most vile newspaper. This was almost matched by The Sun who purposely chose to darken the skin of Gina Miller – the petitioner who brought the case – to emphasise their “foreign elite” headline.
The press are accustomed to exercising their power without responsibility, and it’s an unalloyed good that the circulations of our most irascible organs are plunging downwards. However, the government, content to let the press mobilise rape and death threats (which, true to hypocritical form, The Sun subsequently branded sick), certainly isn’t immune to consequences. On the one hand, it gives more power to the elbows of Cameroons like Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry – any old rope will do to remind folks they exist and are halfway relevant. On the other it stirs up uneasiness among the wider Tory fraternity as they interpret press outrage as the stirrings of a populist mob of demented bigots venting anger toward institutions the Conservative Party cherishes while simultaneously making their new, strong leader appear powerless. And it can lead to some quitting in disgust, like Stephen Phillips’s resignation from Parliament. Despite being a Tory and a Leave supporter, his objection to the sidelining of Parliament in the Brexit negotiations is right and principled. Furthermore, he’s not returning to the Commons either. See, Zac, that’s how you resign in protest.
Theresa May’s project has two strands to it. First off, there is the patching up of the Thatcherite settlement and, of course, securing Brexit. Her base in big business will ensure as softer a Brexit as possible is secured for them, despite current disagreements and round robin letters from our captains of industry. And, indeed, the High Court judgement, which seems unlikely to get overturned on appeal, is going to help that. The problem for May is the former, for the foreseeable, is destined to be conditioned by the latter. If she makes efforts to follow through on the one nationism, which is ultimately about giving British capitalism some degree of stability, they are under threat of getting blown off course and/or undermined by the volatile mess of the latter. Given circumstances are less than ideal, what with a small majority and all that, and commanding huge leads in the opinion polls (which, lest we forget, have historically overstated Labour support), there are voices in the cabinet and media urging her to go for a general election. A whopping majority would, after all, shrink to insignificance the rebellious potential of Cameroons and diehard Brexiteers and ensure, should the Supreme Court find against the government, a large majority to get Article 50 through the Commons with the minimum of fuss.
I still think a general election is unlikely. Firstly, and it often appears that professional commentators need reminding of this, it is no longer in the gift of the Prime Minister to call an election. If there is to be an early election, it requires either a vote of no confidence in the government or a two-thirds majority in the House assenting to Parliament’s dissolution. Now, some figure that a way around this is for the introduction of a bill for its abolition, which would only need a simple majority, or the Act’s amendment granting the Prime Minister discretion. The problem is both would take up Parliamentary time. It would be very surprising if opposition parties opposed such a move, but it means every party can see it coming a mile off. Effectively, the day it appears on the parliamentary timetable is the day electioneering begins. And it could go on a while if the Commons gets into a game of legislative ping pong with the Lords. The process of calling an election is far from easy.
Second, an election means May would be forced to do the very thing she doesn’t want to do, and that is set out the government’s Brexit negotiating positions. It is simply not sustainable for the next Conservative government to issue a manifesto and merely say it is dedicated to the best possible result for Britain on page after page. Ordinarily, most voters don’t pay attention to detailed minutiae, but with millions politicised by the referendum, this time’s would be a little bit different. Oh yes, and there’s EU politicians too. While it is impolitic for governments to give running commentary on the internal politics of other governments, there’s nothing stopping politicians that are more junior, or are in opposition parties from making statements about the latest Brexit news to come from the UK. And in the febrile atmos of a general election, they could make quite a splash. In short, it’s an absolute nightmare that defies the imposition of control.
And there’s the issue of whether May could win an outright majority. On the basis of the polls, it might appear absurd to suggest she wouldn’t. The PM, however, is nothing but ultra cautious. With politics behaving strangely, she knows it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour could do better. In 2010, despite getting its second worst result since the war and led by a perceived lame duck, it ran the Tories much closer than mid-term polling would have suggested. The second is what would happen to the Liberal Democrat vote. May’s majority rests on the ruthless wipe out operation Dave pursued against his erstwhile partners, particularly in the South West. Yet, as we know, the LibDems have been kicking up a storm in local council by-elections. Ordinarily, they mean very little but the trend is sustained and consistent across a spread of constituencies. Not only have they outpaced UKIP, reclaiming the position of third party in England and Wales, but their performance is well in advance of polling figures. If there’s a trend in actual elections as opposed to the polls, then chances are it’s real. Seeing as May has foolishly flirted with Wrexitism, she is doubly exposed as liberalish Tory types recoil and strong Remain identifiers give the LibDems a punt where they are best placed to win. And if I know this, you can bet she does as well.
How likely is a general election? Not very is the answer. I could be mistaken, but a review of the political terrain and the additional problems a poll in the Spring entails should rule it out. And yet, if she does go to the country despite all this it wouldn’t be a first in recent times if politics indulged the irrational.