18 April 2017

May has given Britain the election it desperately needed


There is only one acceptable response to Theresa May’s announcement that she wants a general election: good. For its own democratic hygiene, Britain desperately needs one. Since the Brexit referendum the country has been sloping miserably around the place like a football hooligan with an unshiftable hangover and morning-after breath. This is the bracing restorative – the cold shower and full English – that is required.

There is, of course, base political calculation at the heart of Mrs May’s proposal – she is confronted with the fierce urgency of now. The 20-point polling gap between her Conservatives and Labour is staggering, sustained and a lit runway to a landslide majority. Her government is as yet largely unbruised by the Brexit process, but will not stay that way for long. The cretinous, toxic Corbyn project will screw up the election campaign as it has screwed up all it has touched in the past two years. What remains of the Labour Party and its junk brand will shrivel further under the harsh spotlight of public attention, and may never recover.

Entertaining enough, but there is maths involved too. Over the next few years the Prime Minister will need the bodies that this election walkover will provide. She has to know that she can win the parliamentary votes on Brexit and everything else without the need for sweaty backroom deals that erode her political capital. She must be able to face down the crackpot wing of the Brexit movement without fear. And she must shake off the lingering feeling that her accidental government, born amid crisis and emergency, isn’t really legit.

But aside from Mrs May’s personal fortunes, this is right for Britain too. The country will now get one half of what it genuinely needs – a stable and robust Conservative administration properly licensed to negotiate Brexit. We will continue to lack an opposition worthy of the name, which is unfortunate, but even here there is a silver lining – the quicker we can show the hard Left our contempt at the ballot box, the quicker the serious business of figuring out the nature of a future, sane, credible centrist party can begin. I hope Mr Blair, Mr Clegg and, perhaps, Mr Osborne, have their thinking caps on.

Let’s return to that point of democratic hygiene. This is not the Cameron government under new leadership. Mrs May has junked large parts of the manifesto that secured her predecessor an overall majority and which we have a constitutional right to expect to be delivered. In tone, temperament and action, she has gone about her business as if she has already won a general election rather than lucked into the top job. On the economy and public spending, industry and education, immigration and more, she has taken a markedly different line to her predecessor. At times, it has felt a bit like a coup, and deeply unBritish.

And, of course, there’s Brexit and all that will follow. The sheer number of decisions to be taken and deals to be negotiated is oppressively mountainous. And it’s not just about securing sexy individual trade arrangements with countries and blocs across the world – the Hollywood end of Brexit. It’s also about the dull stuff: deciding what proportion of a farmer’s fields should be left fallow and what subsidy regime should replace the Common Agricultural Policy; it’s about figuring out what, if any, access EU fishermen should have to the 200-mile exclusive economic zone around the UK’s coastline, and make quid pro quo arrangements; it’s about navigating towards a reasonable immigration policy. It’s about a million other things, all of which require a mandate beyond the one granted by last year’s referendum.

We also now have the opportunity to clarify a few other nagging questions: does Scotland really want to hold a second independence referendum or has the SNP passed its high-water mark? Does Brexit and the collapse of Labour provide the Lib Dems with the chance to renew their reputation as a credible opposition party? Is Ukip dead?

My heart leapt when Mrs May made her announcement. I felt proud to be British for the first time in a while. It’s good to know that we remain, first and foremost, a great democracy.

Chris Deerin is a political commentator