With a week to go, it’s time to talk about the General Election; a subject I’ve been fairly quiet on to date. I think a lot of people – even those of us involved in politics – were with Brenda on 18th April when Theresa May announced a snap General Election. I was campaigning around West Garioch that day and for the remainder of that campaign, I found little enthusiasm for the prospect of this election. As has been often cited, in Scotland we have been to the polls 6 times since the independence referendum in Septemeber 2014.
If there is an element of voter fatigue, it’s hardly surprising given that Theresa May had made it very clear, several times, that she would not be calling an early general election.1 What we needed, she said, was a period of stability where she could focus on Brexit. Suddenly, she changed her mind; it is now essential that we have this election – the most crucial in a generation – in order to give her the strength and stability (more of that later) to negotiate effectively with the EU. On top of that, the reasons she has given for changing her mind simply don’t add up.2 Her claim that an increased majority will strengthen her hand can only be valid if she tells us before we vote next week what that position will be. Then, perhaps, she can tell the EU that her negotiating position has been backed by the British electorate and must be respected. But she hasn’t, and won’t, do that. She was at great pains to point out that some in parliament did not fully support her approach to Brexit. She failed to point out that such opposition has not stopped its progress, nor does it seem unreasonable given that Brexit was apparently about the sovereigty of our parliament.
There were suggestions that the threat of legal action hanging over several conservative MP’s in relation to their election expenses from 2015 may have figured in her calculations. That’s certainly plausible, given that charges would have prompted some tricky by-elections. As it happens, the CPS has now ruled out prosecutions on the grounds that it wouldn’t serve the public interest.3 Far more relevant to Theresa May’s decision, I believe, were the opinion polls, despite recent evidence suggesting that these are increasingly unreliable, that suggested a comfortable Conservative victory. Without this election, Theresa May would be Prime Minister until 2020, at which point a general election might prove quite difficult for a PM who led us out of Europe – something that she herself claimed would not be in our national interest.4. By calling this election – one which she believed she would win with ease and an increased majority – she could retain power for an extra couple of years and probably calculated that a 2022 election would be a little less problematic that one in 2020. Unfortunately, Theresa May appears to have approached the election with the same complacency with which her party prepared for the EU referendum. Her strategy has been the repetition of her ‘strong and stable’ mantra and a hope that the electorate would accept vague suggestions that she’ll do the right thing rather than offer detailed policy.
This ‘trust me, don’t trust Jeremy’ approach, may yet prove sufficient to protect, or even increase, the Conservative majority, but I fear it is indicative of the way in which political campaigns are going. Elections have long been about soundbites but recently they appear to have been about one single soundbite, repeated ad infinitum. Even in the local election campaign in Scotland, the Conservatives in particular focused almost entirely on opposition to a second referendum on independence that is completely outside the control of local councillors. And it worked. Perhaps this comes from having two significant referendums in recent years, a political mechanism that we have not been used to in this country. ‘Strong and stable’ means nothing without policies and actions to back it up and it starts to look a bit misjudged when the policies that are put forward need to be ‘clarified’ (I’m feeling charitable) a few days later. Nor does it look strong to avoid facing questions from the public, or debating opponents face to face. Just yesterday, in defending her decision not to appear on last night’s leaders debate, Theresa May said that it was more important to prepare for Brexit than appear on TV5, again begging the question why did she call this unnecessary election. Perhaps it is also a sign that she is starting to regret it.
In short, this campaign, while mercifully short, has not been vintage in the level of debate, and would have done little to improve Brenda from Bristol’s mood. I won’t be foolhardy enough to predict the outcome next week but can only hope that the following campaign – whenever and whatever that may be – might provoke fewer face-palm moments.