Snap general election catches country on the hop

Jackie Gregory, Senior Lecturer in Journalism

Jackie Gregory

It’s fair to say that Theresa May has caught the country on the hop this Easter by calling a snap general election for June.

Across Stoke Central there was a deafening shout of “Here we go again” when the announcement came from Downing Street just after 11am on Tuesday. Things were only settling down after a hard-fought by-election in February which saw newcomer Gareth Snell retain the seat for Labour, following Tristram Hunt’s resignation.

Snell could become one of the shortest serving incumbent of any seat if the voting turns a different way in June. It is not going to be an easy second election campaign for him. He has not had the chance to make a definitive mark and his majority of 2,620 was bolstered by floating voters who were tactically voting to keep UKIP’s controversial leader Paul Nuttall out, rather than actively voting Snell in. Conservative’s Jack Brereton who ran Nuttall a close third, must now be licking his lips at the prospect of another chance, especially with the city’s voters voting for Brexit last June. UKIP are weakened in this area following the by-election and their best bet, certainly for Stoke Central, is to choose a well-known local candidate.

On a wider scale, this election is being seen by some as the EU referendum Mark II. Despite Article 50 being triggered, it is still a chance for those who are pro-Europe to give the government who is taking us out of the EU a kicking; or for Leave supporters to give Theresa May validation for hard Brexit. Will the Remain voters (including Labour and Conservative Remain voters) now cross party lines to register their dismay by supporting the Lib Dems, who have always been consistent in their anti-Brexit stance? Tim Farron’s party has maintained that the UK should remain within the Single Market.

The election puts Remain MPs who represent a Brexit constituency in a difficult position. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, Labour’s Paul Farrelly won by just 650 votes in 2015. He is a Remain supporter in a pro Brexit area, and who caused controversy late last year, when he voted against his party in maintaining his opposition to triggering Article 50. Elsewhere in the country, some Labour MPs who are Remain and anti-Corbyn are considering not standing again, feeling they are in an impossible position.

The election should sort out whether Corbyn is lamb to the slaughter, or in fact a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Labour has been rolling out some headline-making policies in the past few weeks and will be campaigning on education, living standards and the NHS rather than Brexit, but whether this resonates with the electorate is yet to be seen.

Calling this election is not without risk for May, especially as she had vehemently promised she wouldn’t do so – and flip-flopping is never a good look. Although the odds currently put her as favourite, she could still be a loser if she wins – for if she is returned to Downing Street with a reduced majority, then her position is weakened. She is not so much Iron Lady Mark 2, but a bendable metal one, who could be broken.

Turnouts for snap elections are generally lower than in scheduled general elections, and voter apathy could be more prevalent this time. Many who don’t normally vote turned out for the referendum, because they saw it as a chance for change. Since then there has been issues with fake news, fake promises and some voters feel they were short changed. There may be a feeling a why bother, this time around.

The one thing that is predictable, is that voting patterns are becoming more unpredictable. There is no such thing as a safe seat any more. No MP should be sitting too comfortable this week, and May will have to wait until June to see if she really did pull the rabbit out of the hat.