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Theresa May's Catch-22

This was originally published on 9th June, 2017, and republished on 4th January, 2022.

It’s been commonplace in recent weeks to say that the Conservative Party called a snap election because of their position in the polls, and they were trying to take advantage of Labour weakness. This is an easy tale to tell, and is particularly popular among Jeremy Corbyn’s true believers, for whom it adds to the image of the Conservative Party as ruthless, heartless, and so on.

The thing is, it doesn’t actually make much sense.

(Photo: Getty Images)

If, as the story goes, the Conservatives chose this moment to call an election because of polling, they mustn’t be very bright, because they left Labour enough time to re-organise themselves behind Corbyn, the Lib Dems enough time to put a strategy together, and enough time for the feeling from the referendum to wear off.

If the reason was stability, then why were the Conservatives telling the public that there was no need to destabilise the country by going to a vote for months and months before hand? One of the easiest attacks the opposition and minor parties were able to make during the campaign was that May had gone back on her word, as she had spent months telling the world that she had no intention of calling an election. Her justification for not calling an election was that the country needed stability as it prepared to leave the European Union, so using stability as the justification for calling the election was a stretch.

If the reason was a popular mandate for a ‘Brexit manifesto’ under a new prime minister, then why did they not go to an election straight away? Nothing happened within the months between the referendum and calling the election that would suddenly require a new popular mandate. Furthermore, Westminster systems are not dependent on who the leader of the governing party is, so there is no constitutional justification for this argument.

So, if it wasn’t because of polling, wasn’t because of stability, and wasn’t because of the need for a new mandate — all arguments used by Conservatives to justify the election — then what was the reason?

Well, here it is:

(Photo: Press Association)

This seemingly unremarkable chap is Craig Mackinlay, the MP for South Thanet. He has just been charged with fraud, stemming from the 2015 election.

Specifically, he is charged with over-spending in his campaign, with the Conservatives claiming expenses made in his constituency as being ‘national’ expenditure, under laws designed to stop ‘big money’ from essentially buying seats.

Why does this matter? Because if he is guilty of this offence, it would void his election to Parliament, and a by-election would therefore need to be held. While he is the only MP charged in the investigation, numerous other MPs were investigated. Kent Police notified the public of their investigation earlier this year, and handed evidence over to the Crown Prosecution Service on the 18th of April.

Take one guess as to the date that Theresa May announced the election.

In hindsight, it looks unnecessary. After all, only one MP has been charged, and the Conservatives had a majority of more than one. One losing by-election would not be enough for them to lose their majority. But when May announced the election, the party was looking at double-digit investigations. Multiple by-elections would have destroyed their majority, and having to fight those by-elections because of fraudulent election behaviour would have tarnished their image for some time.

The seat tally they have ended up with at this election is not dissimilar to what they could have expected after multiple by-elections, leaving May with no ‘good’ decision to make. Either go to an election and hope the polls are right, or don’t and hope that the fraud issue goes away. She chose the former, which is now being characterised as a failed gamble, but choosing to ignore the issue may well have been a bigger gamble.


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