Election 2017: The biggest gamble in modern politics . . . since the last one

Following the calling of a general election for 8 June, Julian Francis analyses the PM's thinking behind opting for a snap poll and the possible outcomes once the result is declared.

The starting gun has been fired and once again the UK finds itself going to the polls for the fourth time in two years in what may prove to be the biggest gamble in modern British politics, well since the last one that is.

Despite saying that she had no intention to call an early general election, Theresa May has given into the political pressure and decided to trust her fate to the British people at a time of unprecedented political turmoil at home and abroad. It is a brave betting man who is willing to predict the outcome of the election given how wrong we have all been in the last few years, but Mrs May has put all her chips on blue.  

Justifying her U-turn, the prime minster stated that opposition parties’ political brinksmanship had brought the UK to the edge of disaster and were jeopardising the UK's negotiating position for Brexit. Mrs May is banking on her recent poll lead of 21 points over Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party as a secure enough cushion to not only assure her a win at the polls but an increased majority as well. 

Brexit and leadership

It is clear that Mrs May will make both Brexit and leadership the twin themes of this election arguing that only a Conservative government with a large majority can deliver the right deal for the UK from Brussels and that only she can provide the strong leadership the country needs to lead it into a post-Brexit world. Her justification for the election points to this as she blames the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the House of Lords of attempting to grind down the government and prevent Brexit from happening. She is betting that the country that only a year ago voted to leave the EU will rally behind the government and give it the support it needs in the House of Commons to deliver Brexit.

There is no doubt that this is a large political gamble, all snap elections are, but given the passions that have been stirred up by the EU referendum and the political fallout from that vote the political environment has never been so unstable. 

For a start, it is not that easy to get a general election these days thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliament Act which requires two third of the House of Commons to vote for an election or else the government to lose a confidence vote. So the PM will be going before Parliament tomorrow asking for not only her own party but also the Labour Party to support her call for an election. Should she fail at this hurdle then we get into the messy business of the government engineering its own defeat on a confidence motion. It seems likely that she will get her vote, however, as Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for an election for months so he can't really back down now.

Four possible outcomes

The real danger starts once the election has been called as the PM will face one of four outcomes. 

Firstly, and the best case scenario, is that she wins the election with an increased majority. She will be hailed as a political genius who had the guts to call an election and crush the opposition ensuring a stable Conservative government. This would also send a message to Europe that the British people were fully behind the government and they should be aware of that when they enter negotiations. This only really works if the government significantly increases its majority as only a small increase will not place the government in that much of a better position.

Secondly, the government wins but with a similar or smaller majority. Should this happen then the PM is in the difficult position of looking like a winner but having weakened her hand unnecessarily as the press and her opponents will say. She will be highly vulnerable to a challenge from within her own party as her image of being a strong popular leader will have vanished overnight. This will only lead to a weak inward looking government that will struggle to survive.

Thirdly, the government loses the election but remains the largest party. Should this happen then we are back into coalition territory and all the political compromise that brings. Only this time, depending on the number of MPs each party has, it is unlikely to be as easy as it was in 2010. The Lib Dems have no intention of walking back into government with the Conservatives and a coalition with Labour is out of the question. It is likewise unlikely that the SNP would join a Tory government but it might offer political support in return for another referendum in Scotland, a price the Conservatives won't pay. Should this happen a leadership challenge in the Conservative Party is a certainty.

Fourthly, the government loses the election and Labour either wins a majority or is the largest party. This is a disaster for the Conservatives who will find themselves back in opposition and would reopen all the political issues that they thought they had been put behind them. 

Because the PM has placed Brexit front and centre of this election any result but the first one would reopen the issue of the UK leaving the EU and may well lead to a reversal of government policy and the withdrawal of Article 50 notification.   

Gambling on the unknowns

That is the gamble that the prime minster has taken today and it will no doubt come to be seen as a defining moment of modern British politics regardless of the outcome. At a time of unprecedented social division and political turmoil, this election has a feel of 1974 about it when a previous prime minister also went to the country asking who was in charge. He got an answer he did not want and the same may happen again. 

It will all come down to the unknowns, will Labour's core vote stay loyal, will the Lib Dems be able to make a comeback, will the SNP retain its overwhelming control of Scottish seats, will the electorate have had enough and voter fatigue reduce turnout, will the party activists be able to fight two election in two months? We just don't know.

Sitting here today, it seems likely that the Conservatives will win with an increased majority but that the UK will break along the Brexit fault line with England and Wales voting for the government but Scotland and Northern Ireland voting against. So far from improving the situation the pressure in the UK will increase and another referendum in Scotland will be more likely than ever.   

Elections are a trick that can only be performed once with no fall back if they fail. So we will just have to wait and see if the audience is enjoying the show.

Julian Francis is the director of policy and external affairs at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.