This wasn’t the way Theresa May wanted it. The trials of Gordon Brown – anointed rather than elected as Prime Minister – are still fresh in the mind along Whitehall. May wanted an immediate mandate for her own leadership, not just from her MPs but from her party too. Of course her advisors harboured fears that Andrea Leadsom’s particular brand of home-spun, regressive Conservatism could post a threat to the heir apparent among the grassroots Brexiteers, even though the final bout in this long-running intrigue pitted a heavyweight champion against an amateur featherweight without the benefit of a decent press advisor. But May’s celebrations will be a shade more muted for her promotion going uncontested.
When party leaders fail after being chosen by a ballot of members, it is the fault of the grassroots in choosing a dead duck. When elected prime ministers fail at the job, the country backed the wrong horse. But when a PM-in-waiting is handed the job on a platter – even in the most spectacularly convoluted leadership contest modern politics has ever witnessed – and then fails, it is always the fault of the party. That is the lesson from the demise of Brown. So now there’s only one way Theresa May can get the mandate she craves and protect the party she has served: she must call an immediate general election.
By now the naysayers among you will be cautioning that this is not how parliamentary democracy works. We elect MPs, who then self-organise; we do not elect a president. Of course, that is literally the case, but in recent years the charisma and ability of individuals, rather than the collective power of the group, has come to define politics. How else to explain Boris Johnson and the core role he played in securing the vote in favour of Brexit? And cast your mind back (an almost incomprehensibly long way back now) to the success of the Liberal Democrats in forming a coalition after the 2010 general election: that was all about Nick Clegg and "Cleggmania".
The old way of doing things, though it’s written in statute, no longer reflects the way we actually behave as voters. So if she wants to know her country is behind her, May will have to bite the ballot.
There are benefits to going early, not only for her party but for the country. A little Brexit fatigue may have set in, making a full general election campaign a lacklustre affair, but the rewards will be considerable when negotiations formally open over our departure from the European Union. Such delicate discussions require dedication and consistency; knowing that May will be leading them for a full five years will provide clarity, giving us the best chance of getting a decent deal out of the arrangement. She may have been a timid Remainer, but you can translate “Brexit means Brexit” as “business is business” – and she’s preparing to get down to it.
The markets, which reacted with predictable skittishness to the shock of Brexit, would settle in response to a five-year mandate for May’s Government, presuming she wins a comfortable majority.
That presumption is fair. While Andrea Leadsom, if she had gone the course, would have been a tough sell to the electorate, Theresa May would be a known quantity calling on her country for support at a time when they, too, are craving political stability. If she wants more than a few short years at the helm, she should go to the country early – before her own attempt at Cameron’s “hug-a-hoodie” politics has a chance to split her riven party further.
Going for a snap election has another benefit: it could kill off Ukip, and demolish the Labour party too. Angela Eagle’s ill-fated attempt to wrest back some control over what remains of an official opposition met a comic end when, after days of hesitation, a speech to launch her own leadership bid coincided almost to the second with the unexpected withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom from the Tory race. In a scene reminiscent of The Thick of It, she called on the ITV political journalist Robert Peston to address the room during the set-up of a choreographed joke – he, like most other senior lobby journalists, was not there. A classic lesson in doing your business or getting off the pan; May might learn from it.
Tim Farron, whose Liberal Democrats are the only party who could feasibly benefit from an early vote, has already called on May to immediately announce the date of the next election. Whether she does so or not, it raises questions about taking the incoming PM at her word.
In her aborted campaign for the job, May said she would stick to a fixed-term parliament and wait until 2020 – although it's important to note that that was when she thought she would win a contest, rather than being handed the prime ministership on a plate.
When Gordon Brown took power in 2007 and he hesitated over a snap election, she said he was “running scared of the people’s verdict”. But Brown knew an early vote was a risk. After more than a decade in power, boredom with the status quo would have put Labour at a significant electoral disadvantage. May has no such matters to trouble her. The opposition is in disarray and she is the beholder of the "safe pair of hands" that European leaders, the City, businesses and the people want to see steer them through since David Cameron’s departure. If Theresa May wants to be a unifier, there is no reason to hesitate. A November general election would be my best bet.
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