May outwits rivals

Conservatives will enjoy a massive victory

The Conservative party is more than 20 points ahead of the Labour party in opinion polls. Therefore, now is a very good moment for Prime Minister Theresa May to call a general election. To do so, May must first shepherd a motion through the House of Commons, the elected legislative chamber of the British parliament, with the support of the leaders of the major opposition parties. Both Jeremy Corbyn, the much-maligned leader of the Labour party, and Tim Farron, head of the Liberal Democrats, have already given their implied backing for an early election.

The Conservatives are going to enjoy a massive victory. Not only is the Labour party no longer a strong opposition, the United Kingdom Independence Party is also not as powerful as it used to be. UKIP, which ran on an anti-European Union platform in the 2015 general election, has been exposed as a one-item-agenda party and will not be rewarded further.

As far as the negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union are concerned, calling the election as early as 8 June means May will have a stronger hand even before proceedings really get serious. The longer the EU27 delay starting negotiations in earnest, the more she can take advantage of that gap.

This is an astute move by May, and will give some clarity to British politics. The election will illustrate conclusively how good, or bad, Corbyn has been as leader of the Labour party. It is not difficult to predict that Labour will suffer a massive defeat – since electing Corbyn as party chief in 2015, and reaffirming him in that role in a 2016 leadership contest, Labour’s performance in polls has greatly deteriorated. It currently holds 230 of the 650 seats in the Commons, but will lose around 100 in the coming election. This is what happens when parties take leave of their senses and try to lead a fantasy life.

The interesting question is whether the Scottish National Party will come back with as much strength as before. In Scotland the Conservatives are better off now than they have been for a long time. The SNP is likely to lose some of its Commons seats, and the Conservatives will be strengthened further in the light of what they will win in England. The June election will be an informal poll on the second Scottish independence referendum which Nicola Sturgeon, head of the SNP, proposed in March. Though it is the largest party in the devolved Scottish parliament, the SNP does not wield a majority and has required the support of the Green party to legislate. In both England and Scotland, it appears that May has outwitted all her rivals.

Another crucial concern is how many of the seats which Labour loses go to the LibDems. If voters decide that Corbyn has been especially damaging, then the Labour party will lose its position as the primary opponent against the Conservatives to the LibDems.

There is no doubt that there will be a substantial Conservative majority after 8 June. What matters next is how the remaining seats will be distributed between Labour and the LibDems, and how the SNP performs against the Scottish Conservatives. That is where the future will be decided.

Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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