Why May took the plunge

The prime minister always said she wouldn't call a snap election. So, what changed?


May is seeking to free her own and Hammond's hands
(Image credit: 2016 Getty Images)

"Even before day one of Theresa May's prime ministership, she was categorical about the undesirability of an early election," says The Guardian. Even a month ago "Downing Street said it was not going to happen". However, "it is going to happen after all, and it is happening solely because May sees Conservative partisan advantage in making it happen". After all, "British prime ministers who take over in midterm have no constitutional need' of a personal mandate".

Nevertheless, you can see why she's going for one, says Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. The opinion polls "are overwhelmingly in her favour". YouGov ratings show that half the country thinks "May would make the best prime minister, compared with just 18% for Labour's Jeremy Corbyn", while "the Conservatives are a good 20 points ahead of Labour". It seems May "will significantly reduce Labour's number of MPs and secure her position for the next five years".

"I wonder if accusations that she's gone wobbly have goaded her into this sensational way of laying them to rest," adds Matthew Parris in The Times. There have been rumours "that the prime minister is losing her relish for office... and that she had been struggling to maintain her duties alongside her type 1 diabetes". Such rumours "must be wounding in the extreme".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Another factor behind the snap election may be the backlash against Philip Hammond's decision to break David Cameron's promise not to increase the rates of income tax or national insurance throughout the life of the parliament, says Ross Clark in The Spectator. May can now jettison David Cameron's manifesto, cementing her plans for grammar schools and ensuring that "Hammond can be uninhibited when he delivers his promised big budget in the autumn (assuming he is still chancellor)".

"I can understand entirely why May has gone back on her earlier determination not to call an election until the end of the fixed term in 2020," says Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail. Still, because of the prime minister's shock decision, "we'll be forced to endure one of the longest official campaigns on record" while Britain "has already been in election mode for the past two and a half years".

While the polls suggest that "she'll romp home with a three-figure majority", they've "been spectacularly wrong before". What's more, past history suggests that "voters don't like unnecessary elections and are capable of punishing those who call them". This "has the potential to blow up in her face".

What does the election mean for Brexit?

One of Theresa May's main reasons for calling an election is the need "to convince her European counterparts that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit", says Patrick Wintour in The Guardian. Indeed, the PM thinks that the EU negotiators have been pushing a hard line in order to convince UK voters that "the terms of Brexit are just too painful to accept".

By contrast, Downing Street thinks that a Conservative landslide will convince the EU that "the best solution is to reach a mutually agreeable long-term trading relationship". Then again, the Greek experience "shows the EU does not necessarily crumble when faced by negotiators armed with a fresh mandate from their people".

And what of the domestic political ramifications? A landslide victory for the Conservatives and Theresa May will "push her political horizon from 2020 to 2022", says Janan Ganesh in the FT, and means "she can contemplate a longer transition from membership to non-membership" if that proves more realistic and practical.

A bigger majority also"frees her from bothersome colleagues". But it needn't necessarily imply a softer exit now that "zealots to her right" can't impede it. After all, it would temper the influence of pro-Remain Tories on her too. And she may like it that way. "Power might reveal a more thoroughgoing conservative than the markets realise."

As for Scotland, the prospect of near-permanent Tory rule may alienate some 2014 "No" voters from the unionist cause. May will have to "govern magnanimously" to avoid provoking them.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri