Last term I wrote an article saying that I didn’t think it would be wise for Theresa May to call a General Election in early 2017. After recent by-elections, it’s clear that the Liberal Democrats only pose a limited threat to the Conservatives in heavily Remain-voting parts of the country like Richmond Park. Theresa May has an opportunity to increase her dwindling Commons majority—I for one believe she should seize it.
However, the Richmond Park by-election shouldn’t spook the Prime Minister. Zac Goldsmith fought and lost the contest as an independent, without the backing of CCHQ or the national Conservative Party. Theresa May should not be deterred from striking while the iron is hot, so to speak, and taking advantage of her highly favourable poll ratings and call an early election. Even in staunchly Remain Richmond, the Liberal Democrats could only just snatch a victory, despite their opponent running with no party label whatsoever.
What these by-elections show cumulatively is that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn continues to fall away. In Richmond Park the party did so badly that it lost its deposit (due to getting less than 5% of the vote). Labour haven’t lost their deposit in a London by-election since 1909. The Labour Party tumbled away in Witney, Richmond Park and, most recently, Sleaford & North Hykeham. The Conservatives should capitalise on the weakness of the opposition and cement their position nationally.
Clearly one cannot hold opinion polls in too high esteem after the debacles of the 2015 General Election and Brexit. However, even if the polls are off by a small amount, the Conservatives still have towering leads nationally. What the polls show is UKIP voters switching to the Conservatives and Labour haemorrhaging votes to the Liberal Democrats. This would be more evidence of what’s been happening in recent parliamentary by-elections. The Conservatives also appear to be making historic inroads in Scotland, a hitherto barren region for them. This is no small part down to Ruth Davidson’s efforts to protect the Union and defend the interests of the majority, who voted emphatically against separation in 2014. The Conservatives could expect to make clear advances in this part of the United Kingdom in a General Election.
The polls have given the Conservatives leads of up to 18%. UKIP’s new leader continues to preside over a party whose votes are falling away. Given that UKIP’s only real policy is leaving the European Union, it’s no surprise that many UKIP voters are returning to the Conservative Party under a more socially conservative leader. This would explain why the Conservatives are currently on 42% and hover around that figure. Labour, by contrast, are stagnating as their vote share drops to around 25%, their lowest level since 2009. It’s highly likely that the Conservatives would have a majority of over 100 if Theresa May went to the country in early 2017 rather than waiting until 2020. If not, the Labour Party may ditch Jeremy Corbyn and install a more palatable leader.
Finally, it is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit negotiations may be more complex and quarrelsome than first thought. The Prime Minister should therefore contemplate with real equanimity the prospect of an early General Election to extend the Conservatives’ mandate and acquire one of her own. Gordon Brown came to power in similar circumstances to Theresa May (due to an unopposed coronation as opposed to an internal party election). Theresa May would be well advised to extend the Conservative Party’s mandate to 2022 so that Brexit negotiations do not have to be rushed unnecessarily.