As Prime Minister Theresa May toured Wales on holiday with her husband in early April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s upcoming referendum — his bid to increase his powers and stay in office forever — must have been on her mind. May, whose ratings are far higher than Erdoğan’s, must have wished she hadn’t insisted so forcefully that Brexit is too serious a matter to allow time for an election campaign, nor promised us so often that there would be no general election until 2020. In her speech to the country, delivered outside Number 10 Downing Street, she forbore to announce that this election is thought entirely unnecessary by a good many people. There are those who believe that as a vicar’s daughter, May is “a safe pair of hands.” But no one’s much surprised that she misled us and lied.
Indeed, we have a new media heroine in “Brenda from Bristol,” who reacted in a BBC interview with the words: “You’re joking, not another one. Why does she need to do it?”
May’s own explanation is neither convincing nor reasonable. “At this moment of enormous national significance,” she intoned, “there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.”
Of course there is division in Westminster. Before the referendum, a majority of MPs supported our remaining in the European Union, though a majority also, and supinely, voted to support the government in its opening of negotiations with Europe. Her complaint that Westminster is making Brexit difficult for her is absurd. We are not yet, after all, a dictatorship. Nor is it the case that there is no division in the country, as the Brexit referendum showed with its 52 to 48 result.
There is great uncertainty and confusion. The most likely explanation for May’s decision is that there are differences in her own party and that strengthening her own mandate seems the only solution. Perhaps she could pick off the least malleable of her cabinet. She’s got rid of her old bêtes noire, George Osborne and David Cameron. What about Boris Johnson? It is all too probable that May will win this election with a much bigger Conservative majority than she has at the moment, picking up voters from UKIP and Labour.
Two-thirds of all MPs must vote in favour of an election taking place after two years (rather than the statutory five), and they have. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, is bravely pretending that his party is ready for it. At least Labour hasn’t had time to embark on the de-selection of anti-Corbyn candidates, as had been proposed, which would have further worsened Labour’s prospects. The Liberal Democrats, who were decimated at the last election, believe they’ll pick up disillusioned Remainers from Labour and Conservatives and do better this time, and I expect they will. Only Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, which has 54 MPs at Westminster at the moment, was ready to criticise May openly and at once, saying that this was May’s chance to move the U.K. to the right and to force through deeper spending cuts.
For many the real horror of this election is that the Labour Party faces disintegration, even possible extinction. Corbyn will be blamed, and those of us who have supported him will be blamed, too. Blame should also be directed at the sulking MPs who have refused to work with Corbyn and his rather few backers in parliament.
Corbyn had been losing support, and he has finally lost mine: first for his lukewarm and ineffective interventions during the E.U. referendum campaign; second, for his inability to oppose this very right-wing government. He is right to focus on cuts to social services, particularly to the National Health Service and to education, and to propose higher taxes for higher earners and a higher minimum wage. These policies have encouraged a slight shift in the polls towards Labour. However, the trouble is that Labour’s silence on Brexit will be read as support for a Conservative government to negotiate our exit from Europe behind closed doors, denying scrutiny of the negotiated conditions that will affect us all for a generation.