Voters hate elections. They tend to hate them especially if they aren’t necessary – which is so, strictly speaking, in this case. Theresa May’s case for seeking this contest (that it will help Britain’s Brexit negotiation position) is solidly formed and soundly argued. But it ducked the main point when delivering it yesterday: she wants a poll now because the chances of grinding poor old Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party into the dust have never been better.
The British people voted in a general election only two years ago. They voted in an EU referendum last summer. They have no reason to believe, at this stage, that this Parliament can’t deliver Brexit. That a new one might do so better will not strike many of them as sufficient reason for a contest. So now they are being asked to trudge to the polls for a third time in three years – indeed, in some cases, for the second time in two months, since there are local and Mayoral and police commissioner elections in May.
Many will resent it. Some will show their displeasure by the most practical means possible – namely, by not voting at all. So the Prime Minister faces a problem at the outset. Hardline Remainers are likely to turn out and vote Liberal Democrat. Committed Conservatives in Labour marginals may not, since the prospect of Corbyn winning office is remote. Convinced Leave voters, particularly in Labour seats, may think “job done” – that last June’s referendum did the trick, and that they don’t need to turn out again. May’s main problem may not be the hopeless Corbyn, or Tim Farron, or even Nicola Sturgeon, but apathy.
Against this unpromising background, the Tory campaign is bound to talk up the threat of a Corbyn-and-Sturgeon led hung Parliament. And Corbyn will take the only course that over 30 years of knee-jerk opposition-mongering has taught him to take – i.e: ranting windily about the evil Tories. Prepare, therefore, for seven long weeks of attritional campaigning. This is an unpromising background for what, once the tactical manoeuverings and party posturings are stripped away, is the most momentous election in modern times, or should be. Since Brexit is the biggest decision that the British people have made since the war, it could hardly be otherwise.
So the election that very few people want also turns out to be one that offers exciting political choice – or should do. It is a choice not so much between the parties – though the gulf between Government and Opposition is wider than at any point since the mid-1980s – as, so to speak, within them. May could respond to the unpromising background to this election by simply going negative and playing safe. Or she could follow through the logic of her complaint “burning injustices”, and contest the poll on a radical Tory manifesto that would start to build a country fit for Brexit. Here are seven broad ideas for “reform” – that favourite May/Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill word.
Yes: much of this reform is very risky indeed for the kind of election that we describe. But if it can’t be attempted now with a Labour leader as weak as Corbyn, then it never will.
And that seventh proposal? The same as usual. All these policies, and everything else, is subject to the requirements of Brexit.