The announcement of a snap election comes less than a year after Theresa May’s assumption of the office of Prime Minister in July 2016. For months the Conservative Party have maintained they will see out the end of the parliamentary term and seek re-election in 2020. Less than a month ago a Parliamentary spokesperson confirmed that an early election would not be happening. So what has emboldened May to make this political U-turn and go back on her word?
Many of you have probably vaguely wondered at the legality of snap elections upon hearing the news, perhaps even faintly recalling that legislation was put in place in the not too distant past to prevent elections of this nature. If so, kudos to you. In 2011 the Fixed Term Parliament Act passed to ensure that Parliamentary elections were to be held every 5 years. Before this the prime minister in office had the power to call an election on a whim, usually to give the incumbent party an advantage in the next election. It was this act that most likely prevented Theresa May from calling an election prior to this point. However, given her public announcement it is likely that she has now found a way around it. Written into the act are two measures the government can take if it wishes to call an early election.
The first way around the FTPA is for two-thirds of the house of commons to vote for an early election. Otherwise, the majority party can derail the government by holding a no-confidence vote in itself. As Jeremy Corbyn has announced he’s supporting the snap election, the former measure is seemingly the most likely at the present. Similarly, the holding of a no-confidence vote within the Conservatives would allow any potentially rebellious Tories the ability to destabilise the vote by going against the majority – a prospect which seems unlikely for risk-adverse May.
Legally, by making use of the loopholes in the FTPA, the Conservatives appear to be in the clear. However, by calling a snap election May is disregarding the important ethical implications that make fixed term parliaments so important. May herself reasoned that the Scots could not vote for independence pre-Brexit because of the many changes and upheavals that would occur after the negotiations. In the same way, it is not fair that the country is set to go to the polls with no knowledge of the post-Brexit political climate their new leader will be navigating. The prospect of May using her electoral success as a mandate to put into place further austerity measures and negotiate for an even harder Brexit is a chilling one.
Negligible ethics aside, the calling of a snap election is a master stroke by May. The Tories currently lead the Labour party by twenty-one percentage points in recent polls and Labour stands very little chance of rebuilding itself within the space of two months after a fraught leadership struggle and a disastrous Remain campaign. Indeed, by holding an election before the start of the Brexit negotiations May sidesteps the risk of an unfavourable end result affecting her popularity in the next election. She also bolsters her standing at the negotiation table by having a strong electoral mandate behind her.