UK election: A swipe at external and internal rivals

In 1995, the then British Prime Minister John Major spectacularly put his five-year tenure of Downing Street on the line by resigning his leadership of the Conservative Party.

Sick and tired of internal bickering from Eurosceptic tories, he called on his dissident colleagues to either “put up or shut up”.

It was the most dramatic gamble of his near 40-year political career.

By doing so, Major sought to seize the initiative in the internal warfare crippling his party by provoking what could be the first Tory leadership contest since he replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

Yesterday, standing in front of the famous black door of number 10 Downing Street, current Prime Minister Theresa May had her “put up or shut up” moment.

Like Major, by calling a snap General Election to be held on June 8th, May is taking a gamble, a big gamble.

While she most certainly has an eye on the internal politics of her own party, she took direct aim at her main political opponents and announced her intention to squash them electorally.

“It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, who want to reopen the divisions of the referendum, and Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP,” she said.

Let’s take them in turn.

Labour under Corbyn are completely un-electable and stand in the latest polls as much as 20 points behind the Tories.

If the election goes as expected, May could consign Labour to opposition for an entire generation.

The desire to capitalise on Labour’s self-inflicted turmoil is undoutedly the primary consideration in her thinking.

The Liberal Democrats, all but wiped away after their turn in Government with the Tories are in rebuild phase, but with just 9 seats they are largely irrelevant.

As for Nicola Sturgeon’s troublesome gaggle of Scottish nationalists, May’s call is also designed to “crush” the desire for a second independence referendum north of the border.

Sturgeon for her part said the snap election is a huge “miscalculation” but at this stage she appears to hold all the aces.

But in terms of Brexit, the calling of the election is May’s attempt to secure her own mandate to govern through the two-year initial round of talks with the EU.

She referred to it yesterday in her speech, that she did not think it ideal to be mid-stream with those talks and then have to face into a General Election.

Reacting to the decision, EU Council President Donald Tusk dubbed Theresa May’s decision to call for a snap election as a twist worth of Alfred Hitchcock.

Tusk first tweeted that he had spoken to Ms May about the decision to hold a new vote on 8 June then compared the move to something created by Hollywood’s master of suspense.

He was referring to remark widely attributed to the British-born filmmaker that a good movie “should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension”.

From an Irish perspective, the manner of the calling of the snap election was surprising to say the least.

Unlike her previous key note Brexit speech earlier this year, there was no mention of Ireland in May’s speech yesterday.

It was clear that it was a decision taken with Westminster arithmatic in mind and not the ongoing stalemate in Belfast.

The failure to mention the North shows clearly how far down the Whitehall agenda the province is.

But, that the North is the forgotten child of the United Kingdom is nothing new, but the decision to call the election makes it highly likely that fresh Assembly elections will take place on the same day.

In Dublin, Ministers Leo Varadkar and Charlie Flanagan, speaking yesterday, insisted that the decision changes nothing in terms of the Government’s strategy.

“This announcement does not change the Government’s commitment to ensuring the best possible outcome for Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations where we will negotiate from a position of strength as one of the EU 27,” Mr Flanagan said.

Varadkar also said that the pending change of leader in Fine Gael will not lead to a snap election here in Ireland.

“It will impact on the efforts to put together an administration in Northern Ireland and it is important the parties in the north redouble their efforts. It is a matter for the British Government and the British people to decide the outcome of their election. But it doesn’t change anything here from our point of view,” he told reporters in Dublin.

“Our Brexit priorities remain the same.”

It then emerged that the Taoiseach and Mrs May spoke by telephone for about 15 minutes but nothing changed it would seem.

Both reiterated their commitments regarding Brexit and Ireland which remain unchanged; that there be no return to a hard border, to maintain the Common Travel Area and both recognised the close trading links between the two economies.

The Taoiseach emphasised to the Prime Minister that a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland should not be contemplated. Both Governments remain committed to the ongoing talks process in Stormont and want to see an executive formed as quickly as possible, he said.

In seven weeks’ time, we will see if Mrs May’s big gamble will have paid off.

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