May’s Gambit

Glen Newey

It’s said that British prime ministers are either bookies or vicars. Some are determinately one or the other, while others think they are the one while being the other. Tony Blair was a bookie who thought he was a vicar. Theresa May – like Gordon Brown, the child of a minister – talks like a vicar and behaves like a bookie. People will talk about May 'gambling' on an early poll, but the point about bookies is that they don't gamble, but play the percentages. In announcing a snap election for 8 June, May will have calculated that, for the Tories, things can’t get any better. Current polls have them around 20 per cent ahead of Labour. May is set to win by a country mile.

She'll have taken her bearings from Brown’s discomfiture, when he failed to cash in his chips during his weekend honeymoon with the electorate after taking over from Blair in 2007. May is still riding the goodwill that new premiers enjoy before soiling their nest. There is no other remotely defensible reason for going to the country now. The referendum is a done deal, and the Brexit terms haven't yet even reached the point of negotiation. Victory for May against such figures as Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron will provide a 'mandate' both for her premiership and the hard Brexit – i.e. rejection of labour mobility and hence withdrawal from the single market – that Brexiters denied was in prospect during last year's referendum debate.

This year's election campaign will be more or less entirely Brexit-flavoured. None of the main parties will thwart the people's will of last June. Even Farron will only pipe about a second referendum on the terms of the deal. The one party, other than in Northern Ireland, that can dare to affront the English demos is the SNP, whose regard for the EU stands between it and its apotheosis as the Ukip of the north. It can expect to do about as well as it did in 2015 against utterly enfeebled opposition, and will surely campaign to restage the 2014 independence vote. May's finger-wagging at the Scots will have done little to revive unionist fortunes.

A likely upshot of May's gambit will be that the Tories get enough seats to guarantee them the next election as well as this one. Labour will be a northern and metropolitan remnant led by someone who isn't Jeremy Corbyn. Farron's Lib Dems will probably make a few gains from destitute Remainers. A striking feature of the nativist surge in Europe and the US, seen in the growth of frank xenophobia and racism in the UK as elsewhere, is that its British version has had very little of the protectionist and capitalism-in-one-country tincture of Trump's platform, as well as some European nativist parties. Why? It's tempting to say that Anglo-Saxon capitalism yokes the ethnocentricity of the English to profit's notoriously footloose internationalism.

The Tories have been having this argument since Joseph Chamberlain's Tariff Reform League, or indeed the convulsions under Peel over Corn Law repeal. Singapore is the latest statelet mooted as a model for Brexitland after divorce from the EU. How will the country look in 2020? Scotland may well be on its way out of the UK and back into the EU, leaving behind a wilderness of rumps – rump UK, rump Labour, even rump Ukip. Resident foreigners, those whose presence hasn't been bargained away in the Brexit haggling, will need to be tolerated to deliver services that locals can't or won't perform. My sister was in Eastbourne hospital yesterday. She said she was shocked at the habitual rudeness of the white English patients towards the mainly non-white, unfailingly courteous hospital staff. At the same time, the state will need to offer fiscal incentives for inward investment and to retain 'competitiveness'. It all sounds like national socialism, but without the socialism.


  • 18 April 2017 at 1:49pm
    IPFreely says:
    That was quick. Dashed off while watching Sky News? Remember what Harold Wilson said about a week in politics. Admire your dash and savour faire but this entry will have a touch of mildew by next Monday.

    • 18 April 2017 at 4:24pm
      Rich Will says: @ IPFreely
      Wilson may have said that but it's not very relevant to this article, which doesn't make any claims with regard to the next week. If you want to dispute its predictions be specific.

  • 18 April 2017 at 4:23pm
    Chrisdf says:
    Brexit "the will of the people"? Tired old fustian beloved of dictators everywhere. The caprice of public opinion dressed up as such more like. And anyway, in the event, the confused decisions for very different reasons of a minority of 38% of the voting-entitled population. Meanwhile the strange death of Labour England is now explained by Jeremy Corbyn as a cunning tactic whereby union power will wring concessions from an impoverished post-Brexit UK way beyond the stiflingly limited labour regulations of the EU. Miliband, Clegg and Cameron ran away, Corbyn sat on his hands: the best than can be said is that a general election is the last remnant of political process left. It will produce a tory majority whose writ will not run in Scotland and has no plan to deal with the border between NI and the Republic at a time when Nationalists see the prospect of a United Ireland as closer than ever.

  • 18 April 2017 at 4:24pm
    Tanvyeboyo says:
    That was good! And so is this piece from Anne Perkins in the Grauniad:
    Mrs May seeks to cow Tory dissent of all types and one sure thing about this election is that that objective will not be met.
    Hard to believe it after the June 23 watershed moment, but this election is going to further divide the United Kingdom. Mrs May is not the first to put party first but this reeks of opportunism, which is all right against the opposition if there were one, but this is just another season of Tory House of Cards.
    Like Mr Erdogan's referendum, Mrs May is seeking a personal plebiscite, the kind of thing the French used to do in the 19th Century, but this was how they finally said 'non, merci' to De Gaulle.
    There wasn't even the pretence of rule by cabinet. They came in this morning and she fired them all. 'There you have it'.
    If Mr Corbyn had a soupçon of testosterone, or some ungendered equivalent, he would stymie her plans and haggle for an agreement about the conduct of Brexit negotiations and Parliamentary oversight thereof.
    Mrs May should be punished for her u-turns and arrogance, first in parliament and then in the polls, preferably in both.
    In the meantime, this is wreaking havoc in Northern Ireland, not that anyone on 'the mainland' (sic) cares, and is not good for Wales and Scotland as continuing parts of the UK.
    This is the rather awful but articulate view from Dublin: and it makes for sad reading but Mrs May personifies the English straw person it portrays.
    Cameron's weakness made me sad, Mrs May's bookie instincts are dangerous.
    She shall have her election but she will leave the country ever more divided and Tory factionalism will see here leave No 10 in tears.

  • 18 April 2017 at 4:32pm
    gary morgan says:
    Obviously I am being Pollyanna for it is my middle name, but I am going to gamble on what remains of my compatriots' decency to hope that the sensible Brexit type join with we others to give her a bloody nose.
    I am hoping for a truly awful Tory campaign, Brexiter hubris and not a few own goals.
    Still, I'm only 59, under fptp never has my vote actually counted. PR please.
    Regards Gary

  • 18 April 2017 at 5:01pm
    benscanlon says:
    38% of those registered to vote ... surely pretty hefty as compared with the percentage of votes gotten by winners of general elections, isn`t it?

    You`d have to go back to 1959 to find a general election where those registered to vote gave the winner such a level of support ?

    If that's so, I can see why someone like May regards that as the 'people having spoken.'

    • 18 April 2017 at 5:58pm
      Chrisdf says: @ benscanlon
      Really? As opposed for example to the 67% of the electorate who voted to stay in the EEC in 1975? Makes 38% rather thin gruel. However there may be a more intersting discussion as to whether referenda are anything but the most divisive possible instruments of government.

    • 18 April 2017 at 6:39pm
      benscanlon says: @ Chrisdf
      Yes, really.

      67%, on a turnout of 64%, is actually 42.8% of those registered to vote.

      And add to that the fact that 1975 was over forty years ago, voting on a rather different set of EEC arrangements.

    • 18 April 2017 at 7:28pm
      Chrisdf says: @ benscanlon
      So not 38% then. And indeed 42.8% would have made for a comfortable Remain victory. Not least of Cameron's dilettantism was not to set a minimum turnout. Referenda are an awful way to govern: from Ashcroft's analysis : "Those who said they paid little or no attention to politics voted to leave the EU by 58% to 42%." Sounds about right.

  • 18 April 2017 at 5:10pm
    Nick says:
    There is also the timing of the Brexit negotiations themselves. Those around the Cabinet table may have started out by believing their own rhetoric, but seem to have slowly realised the reality, that a 2020 election would come at a deeply awkward stage; late enough in negotiations for the public to have a clear view of the costs of the divorce, but too soon to be able to paint a picture of any benefits. By going now, they can take a more realistic period of time over negotiations and still have something to sell at the following election. Percentages, again.

  • 18 April 2017 at 6:22pm
    Ouessante says:
    Assumes Farron continues to vacillate. All he has to do is say 'vote for us and we will keep UK in EU' to get big vote (my Labour one included). Hard to see why he wouldn't; general election trumps referendum. He won't win but it will be enough of a mandate to skew Tory agenda. Corbyn looks likely to hedge and preside over disaster. Oh and someone always brings up PR lol - still a majority in Scotland despite it.

    • 18 April 2017 at 6:56pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Ouessante
      Labour should say they will revoke Article 50. Corbyn and McDonnell may not want to but if they look at their current situation from a historical perspective they have no other choice. Their presumed strategy of taking advantage of the coming economic troubles with populist policies is now in tatters. They have to throw the kitchen sink at May from now until June 8th.

      Revoke Article 50. Save the NHS. End Austerity. Associate May with Trump. Throw in some electoral reform for good measure just to keep the Tories on their toes.

      The Tories kicked the can down the road in 2012 when they temporarily reversed their position on austerity with an eye on 2015. They kicked it down the road again when Hammond abandoned Osbourne's targets. And now May is kicking it again to 2022 because she knows they will be in no position to win an election in 2020.

      They will eventually be called to account for their actions and when they are there must be socialists ready to step in with the same zeal as the Atlee government of 1945. One election win by progressive forces can change the country for decades for the better.

    • 19 April 2017 at 2:06am
      gary morgan says: @ Ouessante
      Don't laugh too hard at PR, it's not as if fptp yields a mandate, certainly not in my lifetime.

    • 19 April 2017 at 2:10am
      gary morgan says: @ Ouessante
      Scotland is a rather special case, isn't it?

    • 19 April 2017 at 2:13am
      gary morgan says: @ Ouessante
      Agree re. Farron though no great fan. I see he has a decent point.

    • 19 April 2017 at 8:53am
      semitone says: @ Stu Bry
      I don't agree that May "knows" that she "will be in no position to win an election in 2020". Even if the negotiations are a disaster, if Corbyn is still sitting across from her at the dispatch box she cannot lose. Most analysis I've read projects a Labour loss in 2025 as well, if it comes to that.

      So there must be other reasons for her calling this GE now, either nervousness that Labour will see sense and choose an electable leader or - more likely - related to internal Tory party shenanigans.

      When Cameron said he was right to hold the referendum because the Europe question was destabilising "the country", he meant it was destabilising the Conservative Party. Similarly with May's announcement: it's not about us, it's about them.

    • 19 April 2017 at 8:57am
      semitone says: @ Stu Bry
      One other thing: you identify the problem exactly when you suggest Labour takes to the election a policy of revoking Article 50. Many of the seats Labour needs to hold, as well as many it needs to win, voted strongly to Leave. So that is not a winning strategy, unfortunately.

    • 19 April 2017 at 11:23am
      Stu Bry says: @ semitone
      Anyone who attempts to predict an election 8 years in advance is either a fool or a charlatan.

    • 19 April 2017 at 11:29am
      Stu Bry says: @ semitone
      That is obviously an issue however it's possible that the the positives outweigh the negatives.

      There are many Brexit constituencies where the referendum turnout was 20% higher than the last GE turnout. Brexit also is the isn't the primary issue for all voters (as an example Scottish voters went for Labour in 2010 and the SNP in 2011, voters are fluid).

      Labour saying they will revoke Article 50 completely changes the dynamic of the election and moves it from the ground that May clearly intends to fight on which is simply character attacks on Corbyn.

    • 19 April 2017 at 6:05pm
      andrewjmc says: @ semitone
      @semitone: Professor John Curtice doesn't think you're right about Labour voters in Leave constituencies voting 'Leave'. He thinks it may be a political myth based on insufficient analysis of the data. See:

    • 20 April 2017 at 1:26pm
      semitone says: @ andrewjmc
      Thanks Andrew, this is really interesting and I hadn't seen anything along these lines before. But, as Glen Newey says in his latest,

      "even if it’s an imaginary dilemma, the party gives every impression of having impaled itself upon it."

      in a way that's even worse isn't it?

  • 18 April 2017 at 8:05pm
    kooijman says:
    "None of the main parties will thwart the people’s will of last June." What about the Lib Dems? Or does it depend on one's definition of "main party?" I think that they stand to gain from the foretold demise of Labor also. However that may be, this snap election is another example (the Brexit referendum was the other one) of the cynicism of Tory leaders when it comes to letting naked power aspirations override the "national interest" they always claim to defend.

  • 18 April 2017 at 8:33pm
    Russellino says:
    May can kill three birds with one stone here. Brexit, the SNP and Labour. The SNP's popularity is flatlining, and it will be interesting if Ruth Davidson can maintain her polling figures. If so, and its a gigantic if, and with all things remaining equal etc., May will be regarded to be a tactical genius by replacing Labour in Scotland, maintaining one union and de-coupling from another, in one stroke...To in/sane ends depending on your paradigm.

    Of course things won't remain equal.

    • 19 April 2017 at 9:41am
      Amateur Emigrant says: @ Russellino
      Oh my sides, as they say. Fraser Nelson? In The Spectator? You do know how this propaganda thing works, don't you? And the approval rating thing? Poor Fraser is getting his readers all moist thinking that Sturgeon is 'eclipsed in popularity' by Ruth Davidson. Is that right, aye?

  • 18 April 2017 at 9:35pm
    RichardBridle says:
    The referendum was supposedly the most important political choice of the generation. It saw a horribly mendacious campaign and a pitifully low turnout. This general election is now even more important, as it will set in motion a REAL Great Reform that will define the lives of Britons for generations to come. It is not an opportunity for cynicism but one for true participation in democracy (even if we don't have a true democracy). Never mind what the polls say. VOTE!!!

    • 19 April 2017 at 2:08am
      gary morgan says: @ RichardBridle
      I will certainly be voting. And not for May

  • 19 April 2017 at 2:28am
    Graucho says:
    For the umpteenth time Mr. J. Corbyn shows his complete lack of political nous by failing to oppose this election call. The result will make precious little difference to Brexit, but a hell of a difference to the NHS and the BBC. This man couldn't keep his eye on the ball if it hit him in the iris.

  • 19 April 2017 at 4:29am
    timonscreech says:
    The referendum is now superseded and nullified. What counts will be the election result. All parliamentary candidates must state openly if they intend to support continuation of negations to use the EU, or will strive to abort it, and then Remain voters must act tactically.
    The first act of the new parliament would be to decide whether to abort Brexit.

  • 19 April 2017 at 5:55am
    JWA says:

    • 19 April 2017 at 6:46am
      Tanvyeboyo says: @ JWA
      Wrong country, wrong review, wrong phrasing, wrong case. Not funny. Try again, fail again, fail better.

    • 19 April 2017 at 7:08am
      JWA says: @ Tanvyeboyo
      Yeah you keep on being miserable mate. Here we come! Here we come! Here we come! Land of Hope & Glory! We're here because we're here because we're here because we're bloody well here and in the name of JEZ I forgive you, I feel it in my fingers, I feel it my toes, standing on the rooftop shoutin out Baby I'm ready to go, it's all coming up red red roses

    • 19 April 2017 at 7:36am
      JWA says: @ JWA
      It's the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, pet, stiffen the sinews once more unto the breach and they'll call it our finest hour let's get out there and hug a Brexiteer, it's on like Fat Pat's thong

  • 19 April 2017 at 6:06am
    kirov1976 says:
    "A likely upshot of May’s gambit will be that the Tories get enough seats to guarantee them the next election as well as this one."

    This is nonsense. Seats don't carry over from one election to the next.

    • 19 April 2017 at 9:03am
      semitone says: @ kirov1976
      No, but incumbent candidates and governments have an advantage. A resounding, landslide victory at an election is more often followed at the next one by a reduced majority than by a loss.

  • 19 April 2017 at 9:35am
    hag says:
    Not a peep on ukip.
    Are we all assuming they are spent?
    Is it too much to hope that they will divide the hard right, split the tories, and leave labour and the libdems enough kibble to bring about the miracle of coalition?
    Or is there a ukip/tory deal in the offing?

    (... can't wait for the gentle politics of Game of Thrones to return...)

  • 19 April 2017 at 11:52am
    martyn94 says:
    Most of this is utter fantasy. Just exactly what could it take to make her lose? Compromising photos with a choirboy? Much as I don't admire her, I doubt that they exist.

  • 19 April 2017 at 4:43pm
    Coldish says:
    I voted UKIP in 2015, not because I'm a Brexiteer (I'm not), but because no other national party seemed to be paying much attention to the needs and interests of the less well-off - and because its leader spoke out so well in the European parliament against the anti-Russian stance of too many of its members.
    I like Corbyn and would be sure to vote Labour this time if he could only get round to LEADING THE OPPOSITION - the job for which he is paid. He could so easily head a popular electoral campaign to stop or reverse Brexit, whether or not Labour wins this time. 48% of voters in the referendum now have no-one to effectively represent their views unless they live in Scotland or are prepared to hold their noses and vote for the Liberal Democrats - the very party which, by opting to put Cameron and May in power, made the Brexit referendum inevitable and its predictable result possible.

    • 19 April 2017 at 5:46pm
      hag says: @ Coldish
      Hold your nose and vote LibDem - is that the slogan to unite the opposition and save the country from ruin?

    • 20 April 2017 at 7:42am
      Coldish says: @ hag
      Thanks, hag. Of course I'd like to see Labour, LibDems and Greens co-operate in a short-term electoral pact to kick May out and stop Brexit. They don't have to like each other.

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