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Politics continues to surprise, but will Brenda be bothered?

Politics continues to surprise, but will Brenda be bothered?

🕔19.Apr 2017

So, who was surprised at 11.00am yesterday morning as the Prime Minister declared her wish to call a General Election, subject to the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act? Kevin Johnson reflects on this week’s shock announcement – and what it means closer to home.

Well, me for starters – although my surprise came about an hour before as news of a forthcoming statement was released. A snap election looked more likely to be the subject than the Prime Minister’s health, declaring war on North Korea or announcing herself as the new Dr Who.

It is quite astounding, in the age of 24/7 and social media – let alone the gossiping nature of the Westminster village – that nobody outside a tight circle knew that May had a June poll in store as she stood on the steps of Downing Street on an April morning.

I had actually taken the vicar’s daughter at her word. She did not believe there should be an election, she kept saying. To be fair, it would seem she has genuinely changed her mind. But the issue of trust in politicians and what they say may linger in the minds of some voters. Many, like Brenda from Bristol, will feel there’s just too much politics around and they’d quite like some politicians to get on and do some governing.

Whilst the PM could have easily pushed her business through the House of Commons, including Brexit related matters, it is clearly more comfortable with an expected bigger majority and no questions hanging over her head about a personal mandate (think Grammar Schools).

I suspect, apart from a bigger majority, a more personal mandate and sheer political opportunism, the main reason for going to the country is the risk of a General Election so soon after the country leaves the EU. Remainers and Leavers could both have reasons to be dissatisfied with the final deal – this way, Theresa May will have three years in which to embed Brexit before going to the country.

Whilst it is likely – let’s not put it any stronger, we live in surprising times – that she will achieve a majority of landslide proportions over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, it is also probable that she will face a different – perhaps more competent – Opposition Leader within a few months. It will also still be a House of 650 members, rather than 50 fewer as the Boundary Commission changes will not be implemented in time.

The General Election will come, as confirmed in the last few minutes by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, not only as the Government starts its Brexit negotiations, but with significant constitutional issues on the table in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Devolution, of course, is an issue upper mind in our thoughts here at the Chamberlain Files. What impact will a General Election to come a month after the Metro Mayor election have on turnout and voting intentions? It seems likely that it could have a damaging impact on turnout for 4 May. Andrew Carter, Chief Executive at Centre for Cities, makes a strong case in support of that view, with four key points:

  • Turnout in the mayoral elections will be badly affected if they go ahead on 4th May
  • Mayoral candidates will struggle to make their voices heard, regardless of when the elections take place
  • Brexit will become a much bigger issue in the mayoral elections
  • Voting trends in the national elections are more likely to influence the mayoral voting patterns.

Andrew concludes:

This could change the outcome in several places – West Midlands, Tees Valley and West of England in particular. Labour had a ten point lead in the West Midlands at the last General Election, but as the traditional home of the Party’s right-wing, it’s possible that the national leadership’s swing to the left under Jeremy Corbyn will reduce that gap.

Given the ascendancy of Theresa May in full campaigning mode and, potentially, an even lower turnout than we had already feared, Andy Street rather than Siôn Simon is likely to look on yesterday’s news more favourably.

Perhaps even more disconcertingly for advocates of the mayoral model, the knock on impact is that the second election for a West Midlands Mayor, due to take place in May 2020, will not now occur alongside a General Election on the same date. For those of us who believe it will take two terms for the mayoralty to fully register with the electorate in the region, this blow to turnout next time around is more than an unfortunate consequence.

We will be looking with particular interest in what Theresa May puts in her manifesto on devolution. What further powers might be on offer for mayoral combined authorities? What future for the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse? What place now for local enterprise partnerships? Will devolution even register as a big theme in her electoral offer? More broadly, what will all the parties have to say on a new constitutional settlement for the UK which aims to re-balance the country and take account of all the shifting plates, from Europe to Edinburgh?

Whilst there will be no changes to the parliamentary boundaries, it seems probable there will be alterations to line up of local MPs. Birmingham constituencies like Northfield and Edgbaston are surely in play, especially if the sitting MP in the latter constituency decides to call it a day. Given Gisela Stuart, who chaired the Leave campaign, sounded more like she wants Theresa May to continue as PM rather than be replaced by her own party leader on the Radio 4 Today programme, the most symbolic seat in the 1997 New Labour landslide could revert back to the Tories.

Meanwhile, Jess Phillips (Lab, Birmingham Yardley) and Julian Knight (Con, Solihull) will be wondering if the ‘Lib Dem fightback’ is real enough to see the party return to seats it lost just two years ago.

Labour councillors – along with local activists – will be questioning if they have the energy to campaign for a second election in the space of just over two months when they are gearing up for their own gruelling election battle in a year’s time. John Clancy may have welcomed the General Election yesterday, but it is difficult to believe it is anything other than a distraction for his administration and political group right now.

General Election or no General Election, we will still be staging our final Public Debate for the West Midlands Mayor this coming Sunday. It takes place at the Vox Conference Centre at Resorts World Birmingham, NEC, featuring the five leading candidates. Mrs May may not think debates between the main contenders is necessary for good democracy, but we think it’s an important part of the campaign. If you don’t feel quite as turned off to elections as Brenda, do come and join us.

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