U-turns are of course a favourite of politicians around the world as they realise that something they’ve said or promised is going to be either impossible to honour or politically expedient to go back on. Yesterday’s stunning U-turn by the British Prime Minister Theresa May (above) when she called a snap General Election for the 8th June was just such an example of the political U-turn – albeit a truly spectacular one. Since becoming Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation following the country’s vote to leave the European Union last summer, Theresa May has consistently and vehemently insisted that there will be no snap General Election and that she will honour the new fixed-term parliament Act that was passed by David Cameron’s Coalition government in 2011. That says the next General Election was scheduled for the first Thursday in May 2020. The whole point of the fixed-term parliament Act was to give stability and continuity to each administration and remove the oft-used power for a Prime Minister to call a General Election anytime during a five-year period when it best suited their party’s chance of success. This power could also be rejected, disastrously, as was the case for the Labour Party’s James Callaghan in the late 1970s who delayed calling a General Election only for the “Winter of Discontent” to erupt destroying his and his party’s chances of re-election. He was defeated in the eventual 1979 General Election by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, who remained in power for eighteen years. Thirty years later, when Gordon Brown – again leading the Labour Party – became Prime Minister when Tony Blair finally stood aside after a decade as Prime Minister, he had the opportunity to call a quick General Election which he may very well have won. He didn’t and the events of the global financial crisis in 2008 took over and when he eventually did call an election in 2010, the Labour Party failed to secure a majority. Aided by the Liberal Democrats, a small left-of-centre party, David Cameron’s Conservative Party were able to form a Coalition government that responded to the aftermath of the financial crisis with extreme austerity measures that today, seven years later, are still taking their toll on many in the UK.
After issuing Article 50 in March, Theresa May has begun the two-year period of negotiation to withdraw from the European Union, known as “Brexit.” She increasingly seems to favour a more “hard Brexit,” i.e. withdrawing from the EU without negotiating to keep or be part of some or all of the more significant benefits of the being a member of the EU – such as the single market. Many in Britain agree with this approach, but I believe that the majority don’t. Even many of those who voted to Leave in June 2016 didn’t fully grasp just how important trade with the EU is to the United Kingdom. Most I believe would want a much softer Brexit that allows the UK to maintain its close links with the European Union in regards trade, as well as in areas such as visa-free travel. A hard Brexit would sever those automatic and guaranteed links and we would have to renegotiate them as any other nation outside the EU would have to do. The Prime Minister claims that the British opposition parties are trying to obstruct the negotiations over Brexit and the reason she has called this election, despite telling us for a year she wouldn’t, was to strengthen the hand of the Brexit negotiations and, assuming she wins the election, to give her the mandate to pursue the negotiations. Despite once being pro-European Union she is now championing a hard-Brexit and is using this General Election to stifle any opposition to it, or as she said to make it hard for people to “frustrate” an EU exit.
Now that Theresa May has said she wants a General Election, she has to get round the restrictions of the Fixed Parliament Act. There are several ways she can do this, but the method she has chosen is the most logical and obvious one – she will have Parliament vote on the issue today (Wednesday). Two-thirds of MPs will have to support an early General Election. This may seem difficult to get considering the Government has a slim majority. If the Labour Party chose to oppose an early election then the two-thirds threshold would be impossible to achieve. The Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has, however, already stated that he will ask his MPs to support the call for a General Election and that he welcomes the chance to put his policies to the country. The Labour Party are in a dilemma. They are miles behind in the opinion polls and on the face of it seem to have little chance of securing a majority at any General Election, so why would they support an early election that will possibly give the Conservatives another five years of power? It is a bit of a Catch-22 situation. If Labour refuses to support an election, then the Tories and Theresa May will hammer the message to the public that Jeremy Corrbyn and the Labour Party are scared to face a public vote and that their refusal to support an election is an attempt to scupper Brexit. They clearly don’t want this so will support the vote for a General Election in Parliament today and will have just a few weeks to convince the public who seemingly deeply mistrust the Labour Party at the moment that they can lead the country. As for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), who have nearly 60 MPs in the Commons, they have said they will abstain in today’s vote in parliament. They say they support fixed-term parliaments but will not stand in the way of an early General Election:
“We are supporters of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, and that means that parliaments should go their term.
“But we are not going to stand in the way of the election because the election is going to happen.
“The Labour Party is going to vote with the Tories. We are not going to vote with the Tories, we are not going to make life easy for them, we are here to hold them to account.”
Some opinion polls put Labour 20 points behind the Conservatives, a gap perhaps not seen since the disastrous days in 1983 when Michael Foot’s Labour party was devastated at the General Election by a post-Falklands War triumphant Margaret Thatcher. The irony is that polls frequently suggest that many of Labour’s policies under Jeremy Corbyn (above) are extremely popular, yet this seems to be having little effect on whether those voters who will make a difference at the General Election will take a chance and vote Labour. Many blame this squarely on Jeremy Corbyn himself. He was elected to the party leadership on a groundswell of popular support among party members, tens of thousands who joined the party simply to vote for Corbyn. His socialist agenda went against the grain of Labour policy for the last twenty or thirty years which had taken many areas of policy to the right-of-centre. This, for many, had simply created a party that was mimicking Conservative policies in order to appeal to the “middle England” voters who needed to vote Labour for the party to gain a majority. Under Tony Blair they had spectacularly achieved this and swept to a landslide in 1997 after eighteen years in opposition. Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown were in power until 2010. By then, however, the public had become disillusioned and, with the help of the financial crisis of 2008, the Tories regained power albeit as part of a Coalition government.
Austerity was the opportunity for Labour to oppose and rebuild their credibility, but instead they chose to largely support austerity in the belief that that was the only way back to power. As the old saying goes, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. With Labour offering no real alternative at the 2015 election, the public didn’t vote for them and David Cameron was able to narrowly secure a majority. When Ed Miliband resigned as Labour leader after the 2015 defeat, Corbyn came from nowhere as a candidate who simply wanted to spark a debate to becoming the leader of the party. He represented a break from the old Tory-lite image the Labour party was getting and also a reaction to the growing dislike and mistrust of so-called career politicians who were more interested in power and expense accounts than policies and the electorate. Jeremy Corbyn had been on the Labour backbenches for thirty-plus years, advocating his socialist ideas with no hope or expectation of ever having the opportunity to implement them. Theresa May’s call for a General Election gives Corbyn his chance to express his long-standing beliefs to the general public. Much of the population has suffered under the last seven years of austerity and many are deeply concerned over the direction the country will go post-Brexit. It is often in such worrying times that the electorate vote for change. Whether Jeremy Corbyn is the man to inspire the public to go in a different direction is to be seen. The opinion polls suggest not, but as a friend said to me on Facebook yesterday, “you never know.”
MPs back Prime Minister’s call for a General Election by 522 votes to 13
As expected the House of Commons backed the Prime Minister’s call for a snap General Election to be held on the 8th June. Although the SNP abstained in the vote (with the exception of two suspended SNP MPs who voted against), the main Opposition party – the Labour Party – largely backed it ensuring that the threshold of two-thirds of MPs voting in favour was reached. The PM is seeking an election in order to give her a mandate to pursue the Brexit negotations in her way and with a strengthened hand. Should she win the General Election it will also weaken those opposed to her approach to Brexit. Only thirteen MPs voted against an early election, which will now be just two years after the last one. You can read more about these 13 MPs, who were:
Nine Labour MPs:
1. Ronnie Campbell
2. Ann Clwyd
3. Paul Farrelly
4. Jim Fitzpatrick
5. Clive Lewis
6. Fiona Mactaggart
7. Liz McInnes
8. Dennis Skinner
9. Graham Stringer
Three Independent MPs:
1. Lady Slyvia Hermon
2. Natalie McGarry (suspended SNP)
3. Michelle Thomson (suspended SNP)
One SLDP MP:
1. Dr Alasdair McDonnell
One of the nine Labour MPs to vote against was Ann Clwyd who, on her Twitter account gave her reasoning for doing so: “I voted against calling an early General Election because this is a cynical distraction from Brexit. PM is in trouble and running scared!” Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, who voted for the election, echoed Ms Clwyd’s opinion that the sudden election is a distraction. She said that the Government want it to be seen as a mandate for Brexit when instead it is “because they want to distract from the fact that we have a failing government”. Meanwhile the Conservative MP and Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green said the election won’t be wholly about Brexit, but said “for some people this election will be overwhelmingly about Brexit”. This is a real danger for this election that it will be pushed as a means to give the Government the mandate to see through the Brexit negotiations and in the process hoping that the public will largely overlook the fact that it is a General Election and that it will decide who will run the country regardless of Brexit. This may be a reason why Theresa May has already ruled out having any TV debates during the campaign. Just maybe she doesn’t want to stand on a stage with Jeremy Corbyn and have to justify her Government’s failures. She used the excuse on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that she preferred “to get out and about and meet voters.” Jeremy Corbyn has accused her of “dodging” a debate with him. ITV has already announced a planned debate regardless of May’s willingness to appear on one, to which the Lib Dems suggested they “empty chair” her if she refuses to appear on a debate. The Lib Dem leader Tim Farron saying:
“The prime minister’s attempt to dodge scrutiny shows how she holds the public in contempt.
“The British people deserve to see their potential leaders talking about the future of our country.”
The Labour leader thought it “rather strange” that she wouldn’t debate him and challenged her to live up to her promise of strong leadership and show some by debating the issues:
“Let’s have the debates. It’s what democracy needs and what the British people deserve.”
The Prime Minister remains adamant that she won’t do TV debates, but then again she said repeatedly she wouldn’t call a snap General Election. Meanwhile the BBC has yet to say what it will do regarding debates and has said that it will announce it’s election coverage in due time.
George Osborne to quit as MP for Tatton
Unsurprisingly, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has decided that he’s had enough of Parliament and will not stand for re-election on 8th June as MP for Tatton. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2010 to 2016, overseeing the implementation of austerity measures under the premiership of David Cameron. Since he left the office he has continued to be MP for Tatton (for which he receives nearly £75,000) but has also attracted controversy by taking on several high-paid, and often very part-time, jobs, which include:
- Editor, London Evening Standard: Paid £200,000, according to reports
- Adviser, BlackRock Investment Institute: Paid £650,000 a year
- Chair, Northern Powerhouse Partnership: Unpaid
- Kissinger Fellow at the McCain Institute: £120,212 stipend to cover travel and research costs
- Washington Speaker’s Bureau: Paid nearly £800,000 for engagements since July
Osborne was only 45 when he stopped being Chancellor of the Exchequer and said that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life “just being an ex-Chancellor,” and that he wanted “new challenges.” He added:
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to edit the Evening Standard.
“More so than at any time in my life, the public need from the media the straight facts and informed opinion to help them to make the big decisions Britain now faces about the country we want to be.
“That starts with the coverage of this general election.”
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn had described Osborne’s editorship of the Evening Standard as a “joke” and called for a by-election in Tatton. For Corbyn, Osborne’s editorship made a “mockery of the independence of the media. It takes multi-tasking to a new level and is an insult to the electors he is supposed to serve.” The possibility of conflicts of interest and overlapping of his responsibilities as an MP and as a newspaper editor has no doubt made it difficult for Osborne to remain both. Like many, he has chosen the more lucrative prospect of the private sector over any commitment he felt towards his electorate in Tatton. Ironically, when Osborne graduated from Oxford he failed to gain a place as a trainee on The Times, though he did manage to become, albeit briefly, a freelance reporter for the Daily Telegraph’s daily column.
Undoubtedly, Mr Osborne will be one of several MPs who decide to call it a day at the General Election, which is nothing unusual. Conversely, some old-timers will continue to fight the fight and seek re-election to the House of Commons while others are considering their position. One of the most prominent MPs to announce he will stand again this year is veteran Conservative MP Ken Clarke (below). Mr Clarke had suggested that he would stand down in 2020 when he would have been MP for Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for fifty years. Now that the snap election has been called he has decided to stand again. He is already Father of the House – the longest-serving Member of Parliament. He had said last year that this would be his last Parliament, but his office today confirmed: “He’s putting himself forward to be the Conservative candidate for Rushcliffe in June.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is facing several of his MPs deciding to quit, so far including the former Secretary Alan Johnson, moderate MP Tom Blenkinsop, Andrew Smith and Iain Wright. The last of these said on his Twitter account:
“I do not intend to stand again to become Member of Parliament for Hartlepool.
“It has been an enormous privilege to serve my home town in Parliament. I have now been an MP for a third of my life. I would like to do other things and now is a good opportunity to do so.
“I would like to thank my constituents for giving me the honour of allowing me to be their Member of Parliament since 2004.”
Quitting Labour MPs Alan Johnson, Iain Wright, Tom Blenkinsop and Andrew Smith
MPs quit Parliament for many reasons, but the impending electoral disaster for Jeremy Corbyn if he can’t turn around the massive poll lead for the Conservatives is certainly a reason why some will decide to jump before they are pushed. Some polls suggest a 20 point lead for the Tories. If this was translated into parliamentary seats it would be a total disaster for Labour with a loss of perhaps a third of their current seats, which would propel the Tories to a comfortable majority. The Daily Mail, not known for its support of Labour, quoted the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock as saying he didn’t expect to live to see another Labour government. I find it surprising that Kinnock of all people is suggesting this. He certainly didn’t know how to win an election. During his nine years as Labour leader he lost two – in 1987 and 1992. The latter in particular he was expected to win but managed to lose it from the jaws of victory to John Major’s Conservatives who scraped home with a small majority.
Neil Kinnock, an MP from 1970-1995 and leader of the Labour Party from 1983-1992, during which he lost two General Elections
Andrew Smith, who was played a pivotal role in allowing Jeremy Corbyn to stand for leadership election in 2015, reflected on his decision to quit at this General Election:
“This election is for a Parliament which is likely to run until 2022, when I would be over 71, so I think it is now time for someone else to take forward the work of serving local people as your MP. I will therefore not be a candidate in the election.
“My belief and confidence in the values of fairness which Labour stands for are as strong as ever, and I will work tirelessly to help secure the election of a Labour MP for Oxford East, carrying forward the service which Oxford Labour gives our local community.”
The General Election campaign gets under way
Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May on the campaign trail in Croydon and Bolton
Asking the electorate to “give her the mandate to speak for Britain and to deliver for Britain,” Theresa May kicked off the 2017 General Election campaign, with the election just seven weeks away tomorrow. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn is already trying to focus the election on the delivery of public services and the state of the economy following Brexit. He expressed fears that Mrs May would use Brexit to turn the UK into an “offshore tax haven” and vowed to prevent this if Labour forms the next Government. He said that he would raise the minimum wage from the current £7.50 per hour to £10 per hour and that a Labour government would possibly increase tax on those earning more than £75,000 per year, and pledged increase spending on the NHS, social care and council housing. Despite the slim chances of a Labour majority, the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg believes that Corbyn has ruled out “progressive alliances” with smaller parties.
The Prime Minister told MPs today that there was a “window of opportunity” to go to the polls before the Brexit negotiations begin in earnest. She is hoping to increase the Conservative’s majority of 17 seats and therefore strengthen her hand in the upcoming negotiations. She said that it would be wrong for the UK to have waited to 2020 for an election, and to have an election “looming on the horizon” at a time when the country could be facing the most “difficult and sensitive” period in the Brexit negotiations. We are scheduled to leave the European Union in March 2019 with the General Election, under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, scheduled for the first Thursday in May 2020. She said that it was “right and responsible” thing to do and that she wanted to help prepare the people of the UK for life outside the EU. How holding an election now helps with this is beyond me. It seems that the reasoning for the snap election is not to help the people of the UK but to help Mrs May and the Conservatives to impose a “hard Brexit” on the country – a country where nearly half the electorate voted against leaving the EU and many of those who did vote for Brexit did not envisage it meaning a “hard Brexit.” The country and its people need to debate just what Brexit is going to mean, and a General Election campaign is not necessarily the time and place to do that. The time for that was before last year’s in/out referendum vote, not a year after it. The public were lied to and deceived over what Brexit would mean last year and many are now walking blind and ignorant into the future outside the European Union with no real sense of the consequences and effects it is going to have on the country.
Speaking in Bolton, the Prime Minister compared her “strong and stable leadership” to the “coalition of chaos” which would follow a Labour victory. She accused the Lib Dems of being willing to “prop-up” Labour – returning to the “coalition of losers” scaremongering used previously by David Cameron. Remember, however, it was the Conservative party who were propped up by the Lib Dems in 2010. Without their support and co-operation, the Conservatives could not have formed a Coalition Government and would have struggled to stay in power as a minority Government. In Cameron’s elections, the Conservatives also stoked up the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). Again this was used to promote fear against what was labelled by the Tories as another “coalition of losers” but again was an unlikely prospect in political reality. Today, Mrs May accused the SNP of “tunnel vision” over Scottish independence and that they risked destabilising the country. I find the Tories obsession with the SNP strange as the SNP are a much greater threat to the chances of a Labour majority than a Conservative majority. Indeed, a strong SNP vote on 8th June will only help the Conservatives. At the election in 2015 the SNP all but wiped out Labour’s Scottish Westminster MPs and if this is repeated it is a overwhelming obstacle to Labour becoming the next Government. The Tories concern with the SNP is more to do with its calls for Scottish independence, something which the Conservative party is vehemently opposed to. Mrs May has already ruled out the SNP’s calls for a second referendum, following the NO vote in the 2014 referendum. She is unlikely to allow a second referendum as long as she is Prime Minister.
Early clashes between Mrs May and Mr Corbyn continued today. Jeremy Corbyn said the public “cannot trust” the Prime Minister, using her u-turn on the snap election by saying “How can any voter trust what the Prime Minister said.” He claimed that the PM had “broken promises” on the NHS and the deficit and had “starved” schools of money while cutting taxes for the rich. Meanwhile, Theresa May said that Labour was “bankrupt” and that only the Conservatives could ensure a “strong economy and defence” and make a success of Brexit. She said that the General Election was in “our country’s national interest” and that there should be unity, not division, at Westminster over Brexit. Speaking in the Commons today, Jeremy Corbyn maintained that the Conservatives’ record was one of falling wages, rising debt, increasing child poverty and an NHS that was in a “year-round crisis.” He continued:
“Austerity has failed. Over the last seven years, the Tories have broken every promise on living standards,, the deficit, debt, the health service and schools funding. Why should anyone believe a word they say over the next seven weeks?”
In response, Mrs May said she was “very proud” of her Government’s achievements and emphasised that the country faces a “real choice” at the election:
“We will be fighting for every vote. While the right honourable gentleman (Mr Corbyn) would bankrupt our economy, weaken our defences and is simply not fit to lead.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning Mrs May said that “no politician wanted to hold an election for the sake of it” and there were risks involved in doing so. But she insisted that she trusted the British public “and I am asking them to put their trust in me”. On the calling of a snap election she added:
“I genuinely came to this decision reluctantly having looked at the circumstances and having looked ahead at the process of negotiation. I want this country to be able to play the strongest hand possible in those negotiations and be in a position to get the best possible deal.
“That is in our long-term interest. That is what this is about.”
Again the Prime Minister is focusing the election on the issue of Brexit, even though she argued that it would not be a re-run of the Brexit referendum. As the BBC’s Norman Smith suggests, there are other huge issues that would normally be the focus of a General Election – the NHS, school reform, social care, etc., etc.. Yet, he says, “Brexit was bigger than anything else.” The PM, he suggests, is portraying herself as the “Brexit candidate.” Focus needs to be placed on the everyday issues which normally preoccupy a General Election campaign, not just whether to give the Government a mandate to pursue a “hard Brexit.” Jeremy Corbyn is already trying to do this by focusing on public services, but I fear that the Conservatives and the media are not going to go along with this and, indeed, this General Election will end up a re-run of the Brexit referendum.
Registering to vote
If you already registered to vote you don’t need to do anything. You will receive your polling card in due time. You can check if you are registered on the Electoral Commission website, or can download forms to register by post. Voters in Northern Ireland who wish to vote by post should get a form via their local Area Electoral Office. The deadline for registering to vote is 22 May and you need to be aged 18 before the 8th June to vote, though you can register to vote once you reach the age of 16. If you are on holiday you can vote by proxy and will need to use a proxy who are themselves eligible and registered to vote in this election. (read more about registering to vote)
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