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A penance or a curse

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

If the UK general election had been a military battle it would be taught in Army staff colleges around the world as an object lesson in how NOT to conduct a campaign.

Theresa May had clear and practical reasons for seeking a fresh mandate. She just ignored the more compelling political reasons for not seeking one. In Downing Street on 18 April she justified her decision by citing threats from Labour to vote against any deal reached with the EU, from Lib-Dems to grind the business of government to a standstill, and from the SNP to vote against repealing Britain’s EU membership. She said if we don’t hold an election now negotiations with the EU will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next one (early 2020).

All her claims were true and the logic of her decision was impeccable. However, any political leader should know that whatever reasons are advanced for calling an early general election, the public will believe an entirely different set by the end of the campaign.

Power not only corrupts, it tends to impair the judgment of otherwise reasonably sane individuals.

I remember being one of a group of Tory candidates who went to Downing Street in early 1974 for discussions with PM Ted Heath. At that time little coal was getting to the power stations, Britain was on a 3-day week, inflation was running at 20 per cent and unions were demanding 25 per cent increases. Despite all this, Heath sat on the stool of his grand piano in the first floor drawing room, looking for all the world like Liberace without the glitter, and talked of his great relationships with trade union leaders.

When we left we adjourned to a nearby pub in Whitehall where the senior member of our group, Nigel Lawson, then editor of The Spectator and later to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, summed up all our feelings by saying ‘He’s gone raving mad’. A few weeks later Heath called an early general election. We fought under his campaign slogan ‘Who governs Britain?’ but the nation’s answer was ‘Not you, Ted’. The wise know and the elderly learn that history has a habit of repeating itself. Theresa May appears to fall into neither category.

How could she not see that her decision, so blatantly at odds with all her previous statements, would be portrayed as simply playing party politics? She could have disarmed much criticism by a human touch, a touch of humility, like ‘I’m deeply conscious that I’m Prime Minister solely as a result of becoming leader of my party following David Cameron’s resignation, so I feel in honour bound to seek your approval of my administration’.

But she didn’t.

Had the campaign lasted just the traditional three weeks she may have pulled it off. But she knew that under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 (part of the Lib-Dems price for joining the Tories in coalition) not only does an early general election need to be approved by two-thirds of all MPs but the minimum period between formal dissolution of Parliament and polling day was increased to 5 weeks. This meant that the overall length of the campaign was 51 days.

Harold Wilson once said ‘A week is a long time in politics’. Theresa May proved its truth by ignoring it.

For many it was an election too far. First 2015, then Brexit in 2016, now this; it was becoming an annual event. To be fair, it only took place because Labour voted overwhelmingly for it. Parliament approved the resolution 522-13, with the SNP abstaining and only 9 Labour rebels against.

The worst blunder came three weeks before polling when the Tory election manifesto revealed plans to recover the full cost of residential age-care from the estates of those who had been home-owners, with only the first £100,000 being exempt from recovery. In the UK, 75 per cent of the over-65s own their own home so this was hardly likely to encourage them to vote Conservative. If you add all their offspring patiently waiting to inherit Dad & Mum’s house it’s astonishing that the Tories actually polled as well as they did.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn was busy bribing students with other people’s money. He promised the immediate abolition of all tuition fees and strongly hinted that existing student loans would be cancelled. Unsurprisingly, the arrival of Corbyn bearing these lavish gifts produced stunning results for Labour in university towns, where he is now widely known as El Greco.

The marvel of this election is that even after such a poor campaign the Tories are still comfortably the largest party, just 13 seats down on their 2015 results; are unlikely to be defeated in a parliamentary vote by any combination of Labour and minor parties; and with the collapse of the SNP vote have seen prospects of a break-up of the UK seriously diminished.

They will need an agreement with the DUP as insurance against surprise Labour ambushes but there’s nothing wrong with forging an alliance with Unionists from Northern Ireland. After all, the party’s full title remains ‘the Conservative & Unionist Party’ and it was only Edward Heath who in 1973 drove them out. How appropriate it would be were Unionists to come back into close partnership with the Tories now that the UK is about to be freed from EU control – to which Heath consigned the nation on 1 January 1973.

The worst thing Tory MPs can do now is panic. They should leave that to stockbrokers and merchant bankers who have turned it into an art-form.

With the aim of obtaining the best possible outcome for the UK they should support Theresa May in continuing the conduct of Brexit negotiations. They can regard it as either a penance or a curse but in either case it’s the wisest decision. The party has often been described as an autocracy tempered by assassination. The hope is that now the daggers will remain sheathed for the next two years.

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