As Theresa May decided after all to call a snap general election, which will now take place in just seven weeks’ time on 8 June, too few commentators called May out for what amounts to a brazen and deceitful display of political opportunism. Rather than questioning the strength of her leadership or calling her a liar, they simply threw up their arms and described her as inscrutable instead.
The decision to call a snap election was a surprise – a shock even, and a nasty one at that – but mostly because May has been adamantly ruling out the possibility ever since she began her campaign for the leadership of the country, in the immediate aftermath of the EU membership referendum last June.
Just a week after the UK voted by a slender margin to leave the EU, May commenced her leadership campaign by stating ‘There should be no general election until 2020’. Pressed on the issue as Prime Minister, in September she huffily assured, ‘I’m not going to be calling a snap election. I’ve been very clear that I think we need that period of time, that stability, to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing and have that election in 2020’.
Of course in a mere matter of months, May had switched from a Home Secretary supporting however nebulously the campaign to remain in the EU – even giving a major speech in which she urged Britain to ‘stand tall and lead in Europe’, although she added that the country should quit the separate European Convention on Human Rights – to a Prime Minister who could recite almost on a daily basis ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and to toss with the rest.
Michael Heseltine – the Tory peer who was recently sacked from five roles as a government economic advisor because he dared to flout the party’s wishes by voting against Brexit – has condemned May for showing such a sudden change of heart. Incorporating an unflattering comparison with Margaret Thatcher, he invoked May’s ‘stand tall and lead’ comment and said, ‘I don’t know how someone who made that speech can, within a few weeks, say Brexit is Brexit and ask the nation to unite behind it […] This lady was for turning’.
But after making her reputation on the blood and thunder of anti-immigrant rhetoric, it was perhaps less of a surprise to see May shift her stance on Brexit and the EU. Her big speech aside, she offered little to the ‘Remain’ campaign, striving only to leave her skirt suits, tartans, and expensive leather trousers visibly unsoiled. David Cameron’s former communications chief would later accuse her of a ‘sphinx-like approach’ which left the then-Prime Minister feeling ‘badly let down’.
This time however, the U-turn, the flip-flop, the inelegant back-pedalling and the screeching reversal, caught everyone unaware partly because it was still more sudden. Less than a month ago May’s official spokesperson said, ‘There is no change in our position on an early general election, that there isn’t going to be one […] It is not going to happen. We have been clear that there isn’t going to be an early general election and the Prime Minister is getting on with delivering the will of the British people’. So shrill populism aside, less sphinx than two-faced Janus.
In announcing the snap general election, May suggested:
‘I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion. Since I became prime minister I’ve said there should be no election until 2020, but now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and security for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions we must take.’
Seeking to explain away her about-turn, she argued ‘The country is coming together but Westminster is not’, accusing the other parties of ‘game-playing’ and adding ‘division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country’.
The truth though is that with their refusal or inability to formulate and convey meaningful plans for Brexit, with their various descriptions of legally residing EU citizens as ‘main cards’ and ‘bargaining chips’, with their backroom deals with Nissan and towards the City of London, and their show of intolerance towards immigrants, their disregard for education, the presence of Boris Johnson, their focus on foodstuffs, it is the Tories and Theresa May’s government who are playing games.
The Labour Party – the official party of opposition – have meanwhile done nothing whatsoever since the referendum to halt the rush of Brexit or even quibble with the unrealised ramifications of the result. It is not their policy to call for a second referendum, and even when they have meekly asked that parliament be allowed to scrutinise the government’s plans, they have been overwhelmingly obliging to the point of bending over.
When they asked last December for Theresa May to publish something regarding her Brexit strategy, they stopped short of demanding a full policy white paper, accepting the vaguest of commitments from the government while readily tying themselves to the invocation of Article 50 by the end of March. In the process they rendered the ongoing hearing in the Supreme Court – which ultimately decided in favour of the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – utterly irrelevant, the Labour Party effectively doing the government’s job for them.
The Liberal Democrats too have hardly rubbished the result of the referendum, and while they advocate a second one on the final terms of any Brexit deal, they currently possess just 9 seats. In early February, when the House of Commons met to vote on much-touted amendments to the Brexit bill, which had been variously proposed by the Liberal Democrats and Labour, every amendment was rejected along party lines.
The proposed amendments covered everything from the rights of EU citizens to Gibraltar, the Good Friday Agreement, and the financial impact of Brexit on the NHS, but even when Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party stood together, their votes were not enough. The Conservatives already possess a significant majority in the Commons – 330 seats compared to Labour’s 229, the SNP’s 54, and the Liberal Democrats’ mere 9 – especially when everyone within the party, with the notable exception of Ken Clarke, shamelessly toes the far-right Eurosceptic line.
The House of Lords too only briefly maintained a sense of morality around the rights of EU citizens and the necessity of allowing parliament a ‘meaningful’ final vote. So where is this ‘division’ and ‘game-playing’ in Westminster? Parliament is not even close to bringing government to a standstill. If anything the opposite is the case: the Conservatives currently have things far too much their own way. Populism, Brexit, the Tory majority, and Labour disarray have already combined to neuter all opposition in the Commons, and a few cries of ‘Unelected!’ swiftly ward off any threat posed by the Lords.
It is equally ludicrous to imply that leading figures in the EU or the heads of its twenty-seven remaining member nations will somehow be cowed or made generous by Theresa May’s added strength back home. Juggling the desires to maintain the integrity of the union, to achieve a mutually satisfactory deal, and to first and foremost manage affairs successfully in their own countries, May’s electoral viability across the UK will trouble them not one jot. The success of Brexit negotiations from Britain’s perspective will rest on reasonable proposals and a softening in the sort of attitude which until now has only riled everybody else up.
So the real reason for this snap election is opportunism, because the Conservatives are well ahead in the polls, and wish to strike now while Labour lumbers from crisis to crisis, and perhaps too because the question of independence has Scotland on edge.
Calling an early election before the invocation of Article 50 would have made the vote in effect a second referendum, threatening May’s position and the prospects for hard Brexit. And sticking with May 2020 – when the next election should have taken place according to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act – would have meant going to the polls a year after the conclusion of Brexit negotiations, with transitional arrangements running amok and all sides more than ready to decry the sorry nature of the deal that has been reached.
Theresa May’s political career is nothing if not opportunistic. Whether inciting hatred of immigrants and distrust of the European Union as Home Secretary, or lingering in the shadows during the referendum campaign and pouncing once the Tory leadership became vacant, opportunism is this vacuous woman’s lifeblood.
She has been accused of running a government without policies while the country’s focus remains fixed on Brexit, and her supposed strength as Prime Minister rests on a vaginal resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, and her refusal to show any character or sense of fun. She rarely makes a gaffe because she speaks only in soundbites, she knows only to scoff bacon butties or Byron burgers in the comfort of her own home, and she distances herself from other politicians, realising that they’d only drag her down as she sticks instead to a small coterie of loyal aides.
A taste for fashion and the ability to read out scripted put-downs come Prime Minister’s Questions are the sum total of her personality. But let’s focus on her political achievements instead. As Home Secretary she illicitly deported 48,000 students, and deported or barred numerous other people from the UK based on flawed and highly partisan advice. She presided over detention centres which were underfunded and overcrowded, lacking healthcare provision, and rife with sexual abuse. She hired vans emblazoned with billboards telling immigrants to ‘go home’, while claiming that immigration makes it ‘impossible to build a cohesive society’ and lying about the impact of immigration on jobs.
And amid all of these abuses of power, amid all the vile and divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric, she still found time for a secret trip and a dodgy ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Saudi Arabia, and repeatedly pressed to push through her Snoopers’ Charter which even in its revised form as the Investigatory Powers Act – finally passed last November – makes Britons among the most spied upon people in the world.
As Prime Minister one of her first tasks was steering through the renewal of the Trident nuclear programme – with it later emerging that she had withheld a serious missile malfunction from the debate. Aside from attempting to evade scrutiny over Brexit, in foreign policy she has continued to provide military support for Saudi Arabia as it orchestrates a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, while since January she has gone cap in hand to such political luminaries as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump.
Domestically she has done nothing and promised little with regard to the grossly underfunded social care sector and the NHS. Her chancellor’s first budget saw him forced into an embarrassing reversal on a planned national insurance rise for the self-employed, a policy that broke a Conservative manifesto pledge, while despite noises to the contrary, welfare austerity remains. Plans for worker representation at boardroom level were overstated then quickly shelved. The Northern Powerhouse no longer exists even as a sop to the north. And while she has repeated a few phrases around social justice, the only domestic policy which she has wholeheartedly supported involves the reintroduction of grammar schools.
As quickly as she announced the snap general election, Theresa May’s team confirmed that she has no intention of taking part in any televised election debates. After the dissolution of parliament, there will be little time for substantial manifestos or policy initiatives, and little inclination on the part of an exhausted public to listen to any of it anyway, reducing weeks of campaigning to soundbites and recycled arguments about ‘leadership’ and ‘control’.
May’s hope is that she will come away from the election with an even more sizeable majority in parliament, capitalising on Labour’s lack of focus and unity to deal the opposition a defeat like never before. It is all about strengthening her power domestically and suppressing the faintest signs of dissent – even the danger that any might come from within her own party as Brexit negotiations unfold.
If she gets her wish, the country will head towards Brexit utterly blindfolded, her plans never enunciated on the basis that we are playing a game of poker, where whoever blinks first loses and argument and compromise have no place. Rights we be left unprotected, Britain will be on its way to becoming a ‘great global trading nation’ that relies on sinister arms deals and favours only a rich elite, parliament will be reduced to a rump. This is not an attempt to prevent the opposition stagnating the business of government, but the attempt of a stagnant mind to rid itself of all opposition. For Theresa May, any opposition is too much.
A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.