Be prepared: We could well be heading for a General Election

I am starting to think that the likelihood of a General Election is rising.

Theresa May’s options are limited.

She could probably get a majority of MPs to back a Norway style Brexit if she put some effort into it. She could have done that two years ago. But that would split her party. So she won’t.

She could, as Vince suggested to her, put her own deal to the British people. But every poll that has been done on that possibility suggests that it would lose against a Remain option. However right that would be, it would split her party and leave her with a huge amount of egg on her face.

Or she could go for an election by the same mechanism she used in 2017 – a motion in the House of Commons backed by 2/3. Corbyn could hardly vote against it given that he has been calling for an election for months. We should vote against it, by the way, on the grounds that it won’t solve Brexit and we don’t trust the Government to behave itself with the powers that the EU Withdrawal Act gives it while Parliament is dissolved.

Now, I get that it is unlikely that she could find a manifesto promise on Brexit that her entire party would unite behind. She might consider that it doesn’t matter, though. Because she’ll make the election about going after Corbyn. We saw from Michael Gove’s closing speech in the No Confidence debate the other night a glimmer of what they would unleash in his direction. Every picture of him with dodgy people will be coming to a billboard near you – and he really hasn’t helped himself this week by refusing to talk to May when he’s talked to all sorts of nefarious characters with the stated intention of sorting out the Middle East or Northern Ireland.

I know that May has promised not to lead the Conservatives into another election but her argument would be that Parliament was frustrating the will of the people. This vote, though, would be a chance, however unlikely,  to get her the parliamentary majority which she came within a few thousand votes of getting in 2017. Then she could govern relatively untroubled until 2023. Although she shouldn’t take too much comfort from that prospect given how Major’s last five years as PM went.

And, with Parliament dissolved, heaven knows what the Government would do in terms of illiberal and unscrutinised instrument and order throughout the election campaign. The EU Withdrawal Act does give it a lot of untrammelled power, after all.

An election wouldn’t solve Brexit, of course. She couldn’t get a third of her own MPs to vote for her deal and that is unlikely to change. But that is not what it is about. 

We know that Cabinet ministers have been briefing about an election on 28 February. They may just be trying to frighten MPs into voting for the deal but those tactics haven’t worked so far. Having said that, ploughing on regardless with the same course of action that isn’t working has been something of a hallmark for this lot.

But they could be looking it as the only chance they have of getting something like May’s deal through, relying on a majority as a mandate. By this time, the ERG may well have been bought off with some cosmetic change that enables them to back the deal.

Also, if they won a majority, they would likely get rid of John Bercow as Speaker.

So what should we do in an election? Well, Vince should do what Tim Farron should have done in 2017 and say that if he walks into Downing Street as PM, the very first thing he’ll do, before he so much as puts on the kettle, will be to revoke Article 50 because the political earthquake that would have taken place to get him there would be mandate to do that.

He should say that we want to stop Brexit and that anyone who wants to do that should vote for us. It’s a clear USP.

He also needs to say that Brexit is not the way to deal with the fact that people don’t have homes that they can afford. Building more houses will do that and we’ll do it. We’ll make sure people get decent wages and that the rich pay their fair share of tax. That we’ll build an open, generous-spirited country where we support and value each other.

And we need to stand up straight and say it with confidence. We need to sound like winners. All bets are off, all outcomes are possible.

Earthquakes happen when there are fault lines in the earth’s crust. There are fault lines in our politics and we need to act like we can take power and use it for good. No nuance, no triangulation, just good old-fashioned radical liberalism.

We need to argue that the changes we need to give people power require political reform. We will rebuild the structures and institutions in our country that need it, from the NHS to Parliament itself.

In Scotland, it’s useful that the SNP have been talking about an independence referendum again. We can say with confidence that we are for remaining in the EU and remaining in the UK. We will be on the same side as the majority of people up here. We need to say all the other stuff too, but we should be able to hold on to what we have and at least elect Wendy Chamberlain in North East Fife.

We will get one shot at this. We need to embrace the opportunity and run our best campaign ever if we are put in that situation, of course. The polls suggest that we could overtake Labour if they enable Brexit. And, boy, have they enabled the current mess by propping up the Tories for the last two years. We won’t be taking any lectures from them about the C word. And what will their policy on Brexit be? Who knows?

I said that May would lose the vote on the deal by 60, so my crystal ball is not in the best form of its life.

But it doesn’t hurt to be as ready as you can possibly be, just in case.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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34 Comments

  • David Blake 20th Jan '19 - 3:54pm

    One difficulty for the Tories is that there’d be almighty battles in a few constituencies where there are anti-Brexit candidates. i suppose, though, that a snap election would probably mean that Grieve, Soubry and others would just be re-adopted. Then there’d be no certainty that the Tories would win. It would be a very dirty campaign. Mind you, I think Corbyn’s value to Labour is beginning to diminish. I was quite impressed with Tom Watson’s speech in the no confidence debate.

  • Hilton Marlton 20th Jan '19 - 4:01pm

    Great article Caron. Really clear. Thanks for posting it.

  • If there is another general election, then the party must go after Labour and ruthlessly expose the evils of nationalisation, trade unionism, protectionism and left wing economics, not to mention their insane Red UKIP Brexit folly. The far left must be stopped before anything else – with the aim for the Lib Dems to become the official opposition. Take the economic arguments to the people and make the case for globalisation, immigration, privatisation, free trade and foreign investment.

    Once the left is stopped, the party can then fight as the true opposition to the nationalism and social conservatism which infects the Tories.

  • Furthermore the Lib Dems must include reversing Brexit as a red line in any post election deals with any parties. Additonally the party should argue for joining the Euro and get it back on the agenda, precisely as being a member of the Eurozone would make any attempts at leaving further down the line much harder. The pound is tanking and is now little more than a symbol of UKIP.

  • David Warren 20th Jan '19 - 4:45pm

    I think a General Election is a real possibility.

    Looking at all the options in front of May it’s the one that gives her the best chance of survival.

    For Labour moderates it is also a good option because if Corbyn loses then they could move against him and would probably succeed given that he will have lost two successive General Elections.

    Our party would I feel do well particularly if we position ourselves as a united opposition to the Tories with a comprehensive programme of reform to put right all that is broken in Britain.

  • Paul Barker 20th Jan '19 - 4:49pm

    Oh God Not again!
    Agreed we should fight this, an Election would solve nothing.
    If an Election does happen all our Candidates should stand under a Liberal Democrat – Stop Brexit logo & we should consider not standing against other Anti-Brexit MPs.

  • Stimpson,

    I am not sure we are ready for joining the Euro. That is going to be a hard sell at present in any election campaign.
    The economic focus should be on addressing the issues that led to Brexit as outlined at the Autumn conference.
    In 2016 GDP per head was two and half times higher in London than in Wales or north-east England – yet in London almost five times as much is spent on transport infrastructure per person than in northern England.
    Only London and south-east England have higher levels of productivity than the UK average; Wales and Northern Ireland are 20 percent below the average.
    Britain’s growth rate has fallen from the strongest in the G7, just before the Brexit referendum, to the weakest now. The Office of Budget Responsibility projects that growth will be even slower in 2019.
    In 2016 labour productivity – output per hour worked – in the UK was 15 per cent below the average for the rest of the G7 advanced economies. This is contributing to the biggest squeeze on wages since the end of the Napoleonic Wars: the average pay packet in Britain in 2022 is projected to be more than £20 lower, in real terms, than it was
    before the start of the financial crisis in 2007.
    The UK’s spending on research and development has barely risen as a percentage of GDP for the last twenty years; in 2016 it was almost 20 per cent below the EU average.

  • Dirty tricks were tried at the last election in which a massive Tory lead disappeared as, with every appearance, unfiltered by the media, Corbyn came across as sane, lucid and having principles.
    Polls have the Tories neck and neck with Labour. Will May risk all, especially having dismally failed to get fulsome support on her internal confidence vote ( added to that her promise not to fight another election as leader)? I doubt it unless there is nowhere else to go run.

    Still, if Stimpson’s plan to rule out ever to have a Labour government of any shade (his attacks on Miliband were as rabid as those on Corbyn), let’s look forward to a Tory 1,000 year stint.

  • expats – Where as I ideally (and so should all of us) want a Lib Dem government, what I do not want is a Labour government which is economically left wing. If a figure such as Liz Kendall was leading the party right now, I would be supporting us trying to work with them. I certainly think a Blairite Labour government is preferable to the Tories we have now. Left wing economics in any form – be it Corbynite or a Red UKIP form, or for that matter the Greens or even the BNP (Old Labour for whites) has no place in 2019 under any circumstances.

  • bernard Aris 20th Jan '19 - 5:56pm

    As Bagehot in this weeks Economist (https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/01/19/the-great-rescrambling-of-britains-parties ) points out, the scene in British politics has many similarities with the total meltdown of the old Tory/Whig/Radical fringe model that existed up until the monumentous Corn Law scrapping of 1844/’46. Roy Jenkins gives a vivid picture of what happened in his celebrated biography of Gladstone.
    The Tories split on Corn Law/Free Trade lines (Gladstone folowing Peel on the latter); the Whigs split in a conservative and a radical wing, and the Radicals came into their own. The Peelites and the Radicals/Nonconformist eventually merged into the Liberals, amongst other things because Gladstone made fighting the hyper-opportunistic Disraeli his main purpose and rallying cry. Sounds familiar with us against Corbyn.

  • John Marriott 20th Jan '19 - 5:57pm

    In the immortal words of Brenda from Bristol, “not another one….you’re joking”. What will a General Election solve? I wouldn’t put that much faith in the opinion polls Regarding the Lib Dems’ ability to overtake Labour, under FPTP that might not translate into seats in Parliament -remember 1987.

    Call me naive if you wish; but I am sick and poisoned to death at all the attempts to play party politics at a time when the last thing we need is another testosterone fuelled orgy of recrimination and claim and counter claim. I know that some may be salivating at the idea, well, at least ‘Stimpson’ is. You don’t need a General Election either to postpone or even revoke Article 50. You need a Parliament to stand up and literally be counted. The next few weeks should be very interesting.

  • A general election is just running away, while hoping something turns up. As for attacking Labour, give it a rest we have more important things to fix, like coming up with policies which help the people, privatisation and beating up unions are not policies that help anyone but the 1% Stimpson. Follow the policy of continuing the Tories failed policies on steroids Stimpson will get answer, but it won’t be the one you want. For all Jereneys faults he knows such policies as nationalising the monopolies are popular, why because the privatised monopolies have been seen to fail. An unfortunate fact but a fact neither the less. We tried Orange bookerism, it failed, let it moulder unloved in a corner somewhere and tune into what the people want, what the people need.

  • Daniel Henry 20th Jan '19 - 6:37pm

    John Marriott – none of us want an election, especially when the two main parties are offering Brexit – would make stopping incredibly difficult. We’d much prefer a People’s Vote.

    This topic is more about if the two main parties choose to screw us over by having a General Election.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jan '19 - 6:40pm

    @ Stimpson,

    For once I agree with you. If you want to be in the EU it does make sense to be in it 100%. No half measures! ie Adopt the euro, sign the Schengen agreement, and discontinue all previous opt-outs.

    Go to it, Lib Dems! Have the courage of your convictions!

  • Daniel Henry 20th Jan '19 - 6:41pm

    Simpson, we fought the last election promising a “better opposition” and the voters rightly ignored us in favour of a party that was offering some kind of hope of actual change.

    As Caron said, this time we need to be the party that offers hope for real change.

    Also, the best way to take votes from the Labour Party usually means demonstrating to voters that we can oppose the Tories better than they do.

  • The current Parliament must discharge its duty to resolve the imminent Brexit crisis and, above all else, to force HMG to seek an extension of Article 50 in order to prevent a potentially disastrous “no deal” outcome. In the meantime, a General Election would be a reckless indulgence which the country cannot afford. This would merely be another time wasting device which would further run down the clock and probably resolve absolutely nothing – particularly when both Labour and the Tories are internally divided and currently offering no real choice except slightly differing versions of Brexit.

    For all these reasons, Lib Dem MPs should have the courage to vote against any Govt motion under the FTPA – although we would be powerless to stop such a General Election if the main parties conspire to inflict one on us. If so, we obviously need to be prepared – but, in order to maximise the number of MPs elected on a ‘Stop Brexit’ platform, I also agree with Paul Barker that we should consider not standing, particularly in marginal Labour/Tory seats, against sitting MPs who publicly endorse another referendum (although this stance should probably only apply in Scotland if standing a Lib Dem candidate against an incumbent SNP MP would seriously risk the election of a pro-Brexit Tory or Labour MP). I realise that such a cross-party approach may be vigorously opposed by some Lib Dems – but genuinely believe that the extraordinary circumstances of such an election, if it happens, would justify (temporary and partial) suspension of normal tribal party politics in the wider national interest.

  • I Agree with Caron and the members who have been saying the same for a while. If you go back to 2010 some the Cleggmania was because his message was along the same lines. Ignore for now how that was undone. Brexit has brutally exposed how badly the UK is gears for today’s society. Be that politics, the media, institutions. We desperately need wholesale constitutional reform more than ever. We need to be pushing that, empowering people’s own hands and tearing down the establishment be that left or right.

    Also agree with another comment about Vince revoking article 50 before so much as having a cup of tea 🙂 in the event of a GE on Brexit terms we need to go hard remain

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Jan '19 - 8:45pm

    “We desperately need wholesale constitutional reform more than ever.”

    Seconded wholeheartedly

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Jan '19 - 8:51pm

    I can see the arguments for not standing against people like Caroline Lucas and David Lammy. I’d even go for Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, too. But Anna Soubry has voted for the worst of the Tory Home Office and DWP stuff so I’m reluctant to let her off the hook for that, however helpful she has been on Brexit. Also, if we do stand aside in some seats, I think we need to be clear about why. It may not always be helpful to the person we want to keep. Also we can’t do it in too many places because it will affect our vote share and funding in the next Parliament.

  • A general election would be a disaster for the party at present – to even hold the present seats will be a serious challenge. Scotland and London probably offer the only feasible possibility of gains. The anti-Brexit strategy and its naturally limited appeal will probably become clear to all

  • @David Raw – thanks for posting the excellent speech by Betty Boothroyd; she’s clearly as sharp and incisive as ever and certainly doesn’t mince her words, e.g. her withering assessment of Boris, etc!

    You also say: “The Scottish Labour MPs now support Ref 2 …”. If so, this is obviously most welcome – and assuming that each of their individual MPs would be prepared to pledge their support for such a referendum, perhaps SNP, Labour and Lib Dems should therefore consider, in the event of any imminent General Election only, suspending normal party political rivalries and fighting that election (in Scotland at least) as a ‘Stop Brexit’ Coalition …. whereby, on a seat by seat basis, the coalition parties (possibly also including the Scottish Greens although they obviously have no sitting MPs) would ideally stand a mutually agreed joint candidate representing the party which is electorally best placed to prevent the election of a pro-Brexit Tory MP. The key SNP/Lib Dem marginal seat of Fife NE may well need to be excluded from any such arrangements, however! Alternatively, if a Scotland wide ‘Stop Brexit’ Coalition is considered too ambitious, perhaps this could be restricted to those seats with sitting Tory MPs or which are credible Tory targets (i.e. where they could well win against divided opposition).

    I appreciate all the practical and political difficulties/objections that would arise from any such cross-party arrangements – but, if we were to be faced with a premature General Election, before Brexit is finally resolved, I genuinely believe that such an approach should be seriously considered … including the possibility that Lib Dem candidates could agree, on a strictly on-off basis, to stand aside in favour of sitting anti-Brexit MPs (whether Labour, Tory, Plaid or Green), especially where they are defending marginal seats, throughout the rest of the U.K. too.

  • @David Raw – 10.51pm
    Sadly, you’re most probably right that it is unlikely, largely for the reasons that you’ve stated. I’ve been a loyal Lib Cem member since the merged party’s foundation in 1988 – but some of us (you too, I believe) are clearly less tribal than others and more willing to make common cause on specific issues with those who may otherwise be our political rivals.. .

    @Caron Lindsay – 8.51pm
    Agreed, just to clarify, I do not advocate Lib Dem candidates standing aside across the board against sitting anti-Brexit MPs from other parties, but mainly in tight two-way marginals where we’re “also rans” … especially if our withdrawal might materially assist a successful defence and prevent the election of another pro-Brexit MP. This should be assessed, taking account of each relevant MP’s personal merits, on a seat by seat basis. For example, much as we may appreciate his stalwart support for another EU referendum, it would be pointless for us to stand aside in favour of David Lammy (who you mention) – given that his 2017 majority in Tottenham was nearly 35,000!

  • David, I obviously meant Lib Dem, not Lib Cem! (It’s getting late – so it’s now goodnight from me.)

  • A general election takes 5 weeks (25 working days) and another 2-3 weeks for a new parliament to assemble before it even starts to unravel the Wrexit mess. And we only have 9 weeks before the auto-pilot drives us off the cliff! This would be the ultimate way to run down the clock – even if they lose, the Europhobic head-bangers will have achieved goal by suicidal self-sacrifice.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Jan '19 - 1:33pm

    I don’t see what a General Election would solve. My own view is that we should revoke Article 50, deliver a new constitution that amongst other things tightens up how we deliver major constitutional change and then ask the people again if they wish to have another go at leaving the eu.

  • Neil Sandison 24th Jan '19 - 11:37pm

    A different scenario .TM resigns as leader of the Conservative party and a caretaker acting leader/ Prime minister is put in place .That person requests an extension to Brexit beyond 29th March on the basis parliament does not have a settled position or the government a deliverable mandate .from the people .and it requires a viable government majority to complete its negotiations .The EU refuses and the acting Prime minister argues that we now have to settle for a no deal Brexit on WTO rules as a third country . hard line Brexiteers fall in line having achieve their goal and a new leader is elected from within the conservative ranks .No general election just a bloodless transfer of power without May .

  • Neil Sandison 7th Feb '19 - 6:55pm

    General Elections are not single issue campaigns like Brexit but based on the governments performance overall .The old adage oppositions do not win elections governments lose them still holds true. Corbyn is deliberately muddying the waters calling for a GE because he is hopeless on Brexit and a latent leaver to boot since the mid eighties .He s hoping for bounce as he got to his own surprise in the 2017 election but that was due not to his own efforts but a god awful set of policy proposals launch by Teresa Mays own inner circle which went down like a lead ballon with conservative voters and MPs . We must argue a general election is a distraction to hide splits in both Labor and Consevative ranks and does not address the real issue Brexit is and will remain a very bad deal for Britain .

  • Neil Sandison 7th Feb '19 - 6:56pm

    General Elections are not single issue campaigns like Brexit but based on the governments performance overall .The old adage oppositions do not win elections governments lose them still holds true. Corbyn is deliberately muddying the waters calling for a GE because he is hopeless on Brexit and a latent leaver to boot since the mid eighties .He s hoping for bounce as he got to his own surprise in the 2017 election but that was due not to his own efforts but a god awful set of policy proposals launch by Teresa Mays own inner circle which went down like a lead ballon with conservative voters and MPs . We must argue a general election is a distraction to hide splits in both Labour and Conservative ranks and does not address the real issue Brexit is and will remain a very bad deal for Britain .

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