It speaks volumes about the discipline of Theresa May’s Downing Street that when the Prime Minister announced that she would be delivering a surprise press conference this morning, absolutely no one knew what it would be about. Most journalists believed that Mrs May was set to announce her resignation following an article in last week’s Mail on Sunday which suggested that she was on the verge of quitting, whilst even her own ministers and MPs had no idea what was to come. It was therefore a shock to everybody when the Prime Minister stepped up to the podium outside the iconic black door of Number 10 and laid out plans for a snap general election to be held this summer. In an age of social media and seemingly inevitable leaks, it is incredible that May was able to keep this secret right up until the minute of her announcement. It is even more incredible that this supposedly cautious Prime Minister has taken such a risky move.
By calling a snap election, Prime Minister May has demonstrated that she is confident of victory – she wouldn’t have taken the plunge at such a pivotal moment in British politics if she thought she would be unsuccessful. In this context, today’s announcement can best be understood as a shrewd calculation designed to make use of the considerable political capital that May currently has at her disposal. Nine months after entering Downing Street she continues to enjoy unusually high approval ratings, aided by a rudderless Labour Party under the disastrous leadership of Jeremy Corbyn; a general election looks set to deliver a vast Conservative majority, a vote of confidence in the government’s Brexit plans, and that personal mandate that Theresa May has lacked since she was elected unopposed last summer.
Making her announcement this morning, the Prime Minister was clear that she regarded an election as a necessary evil thanks to the machinations of anti-Brexit forces that are determined to undermine Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Stating that the country needs ‘certainty, stability and strong leadership’ during the Brexit process, May claimed that whilst ‘the country is coming together, Westminster is not.’ She attacked the obstructionism of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, as well as ‘unelected members of the House of Lords (who) have vowed to fight us every step of the way,’ whilst putting herself firmly on the side of those voters who backed Brexit in last year’s EU referendum. It is clear that the Prime Minister will seek to define this election in terms of leadership, contrasting her competence and coherence with the chaotic shambles that is Corbyn’s Labour.
It is not just leadership style where May and Corbyn differ; in ideological terms, this election provides the greatest contrast between the two main parties in almost four decades. Under May the Conservatives have moved to the right, backing Brexit wholeheartedly and rejecting the metropolitan liberalism of the David Cameron era, whilst Jeremy Corbyn has steered Labour further to the left than ever before. As we prepare to choose a new government, we must not forget that this is a man who opposes NATO, the monarchy and all forms of military intervention, a diehard socialist who remains one of the most left-wing Labour MPs; Prime Minister Corbyn would be a threat to Britain’s security, economic prosperity and basic way of life in a way that none of his predecessors could possibly have been.
In contrast, Theresa May has demonstrated over the course of her short premiership that she has the steel, determination and competence to lead the nation through this most challenging period. She stood up to those pro-Europeans who wanted Britain to continue to cling on to some vestiges of EU membership, whilst she has been unafraid to purge members of the previous regime and shape the Conservative Party in her own image, departing from the elitism of the Cameron era and reaching out to working-class voters who have never voted for the Tories. She has faced more criticism in nine months than most Prime Ministers ever receive, but at every step she has faced down her critics and proven that she is anything but the indecisive, dithering caricature that is often presented. She now deserves her own independent mandate and a full term in office to oversee the Brexit process.
By calling this election, May will have hopefully killed off her indecisive image once and for all, whilst also putting an end to the damaging comparisons between her leadership style and that of Gordon Brown, the last unelected Prime Minister who never recovered from his ill-fated refusal to hold an election after entering office. Likewise, despite media talk of election fatigue, the truth is that the public overwhelmingly backs May’s decision; a Guardian poll suggests that 55% of voters support a snap election, meaning that she is unlikely to be punished for going back on her previous pledge not to go to the polls. For months, the Prime Minister’s critics have attacked her for lacking a personal mandate, and now that she is seeking that mandate they cannot criticise her for doing so.
With Election Day scheduled for 8th June, Britain now faces a short and intense seven-week campaign. Most constituencies are yet to select parliamentary candidates, whilst incumbent MPs will have to decide whether or not to stand again in an election that wasn’t expected for at least another two years. A handful have announced their retirement today, the most prominent being the former Cabinet minister and Labour grandee Alan Johnson, and in the coming days it will be interesting to see which of his fellow Labour MPs follow suit, disaffected by Corbyn’s leadership and the hard-left dominance of the party. This will be the most interesting and consequential general election for a generation, as voters will be given the choice between two very different visions for Britain’s future; it is crucial that the humble vicar’s daughter triumphs over her dangerous and incompetent opponent.