Whatever next? Another election and visit to the polling booth…..
When I turned 18 my idealistic young self promised that since women had gone through so much to obtain the vote, that I would always exercise my democratic right and vote when I had the chance. Since then I have voted in every local government, Westminster, Holyrood and European election and a few Referendums besides. Now, even my enthusiasm for playing a part in UK democracy in all its forms is waning a little with the prospect of a visit to my local school to vote on 4 May and then again on 8 June.
Snap elections chosen at a time to suit the Government of the day were supposed to be a thing of the past and very much the exception to the rule once the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 had been passed. This was another example of a constraint on the Prerogative Power we all became so familiar with in the recent Article 50 case in the Supreme Court. To avoid uncertainty as to the timing of elections they would be held on the first Thursday in May every five years. Our next UK election was due in May 2020.
A similar "certainty" provision was originally part of the election arrangements under the Scotland Act 1998. In that case elections for the Scottish Parliament are to be held on the first Thursday in May every fourth year. Legislation was passed in Westminster to change this provision to avoid a clash of elections for both legislatures in 2015. The UK election proceeded in May 2015 and the Scottish Parliament election was delayed until May 2016. Legislative competence for holding Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government elections was transferred to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act 2016. Competence in respect of UK elections (and for the moment EU elections) remains with Westminster.
Perhaps after a week of apparent U turns by the President of the USA we should not be surprised by the Prime Minister's decision to reverse her previous stance on going to the country. Theresa May is presumably anticipating a bigger Conservative majority in the Commons of new members who might be less willing to go against or challenge her direction of travel in Brexit and other areas. It may free her from managing a small majority in the House of Commons which is never a comfortable position. Perhaps it might allow her not to be so conscious of the strong Brexiteers in her Government. She would also have her own mandate, the absence of which might be presentationally awkward for her if the Brexit negotiations become difficult. This has already been pointed out as a weakness by Nicola Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland. The Prime Minister's advisers may see this as a win win situation.
If the polls are to be believed, there might be a collapse in the Labour vote leaving the Commons with no effective Opposition. The SNP and the Northern Irish parties can only succeed at present in a finite number of seats. The Lib Dems seem unlikely to gain sufficient seats to become an alternative opposition. What ever the colour of the sitting Government, a lack of any proper opposition challenge is seldom a desirable situation if real scrutiny of policy and legislation is to have teeth. It may be a case of be careful what you ask for.
In any event, the Labour Leader has said he will support the election being held and Parliament being dissolved. Assuming his MPs follow him, then the motion will be passed in the Commons and off the MPs will head to the hustings.
How will this affect Brexit negotiations? Probably not very much in the short term. No important announcements can be made during the political purdah period, which takes place before all elections, and which will probably start very soon. Civil servants will quietly carry on their work in the Whitehall Ministries and in Brussels. The EU is having its planning meeting towards the end of April to agree the negotiation principles put forward by Mr Tusk. The wider EU itself is probably focused on the outcome of the immediate French and slightly more longer term German elections. Brussels shuts down for August. Realistically Brexit negotiations will probably not begin in earnest until the autumn. This will leave enough time for a different UK administration to pick up the Brexit threads again.
How will this leave Scotland? We were expecting developments by way of the First Minister's recently heralded announcement on the way forward in the Independence discussions with the UK and the campaigns are starting in the local government elections. The Scottish Government is also subject to election purdah and it is difficult to see how major announcements, constitutional or otherwise, can be made until after June 8th. It also remains to be seen how long the political arguments and issues in the local government elections remain "local".
Whatever else, and despite my earlier comments, I will be out voting on the 4th of May and the 8th June. I will retain my unblemished record and this time I am also exercising the proxy votes of one of my sons who will be working in Europe this summer while he still can. Whoever said politics was boring and predictable and the children at least will be happy with another day off school!