Go on, admit it, you’d never heard of Stephen Phillips until, on 4th November, he resigned as the Member of Parliament for Sleaford and North Hykeham, triggering an epidemic of speculation that Theresa May would call a “snap general election”.
The argument goes that such a snap election would increase the number of Conservative MPs in the House of Commons and so shore up her support in Parliament in the light of the High Court Ruling that a Parliamentary vote would be needed before Article 50 can be triggered to start the process of Britain leaving the United Kingdom.
We’ll possibly never know the real reason that Mr Phillips stood down, but his stated reason is bizarre. He claimed that the Prime Minister was ignoring Parliament and that he wanted to see closer scrutiny of her approach to Brexit. On the day that the High Court has made such scrutiny inevitable? Just as the new Select Committee on Exiting the European Union is getting its teeth into the issue? As inquiries by the new International Trade Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee gather momentum? And as just about every other Committee of both the Commons and the Lords sets out an agenda for assessing the impact of Brexit on their policy area?
From education to health, from overseas aid to defence, from home affairs to transport, almost every area of policy imaginable is being examined to ensure that Government has fully understood the opportunities and threats that leaving the European Union will create. And, whilst perhaps your author is dreaming, he would swear that he sees Mrs May every Wednesday taking questions from members of every political party and every point on the spectrum from “Remain” to “Brexit”; and that not one, but three other Secretaries of State (Liam Fox MP, Boris Johnson MP, and David Davis MP) are regularly scheduled to take similar intensive questioning at the Despatch Box and when summoned before the Select Committees.
Something simply doesn’t add up about Stephen Phillips’ decision. Maybe it’s that in his six years in Parliament his political curriculum vitae gained only twelve words reflecting a bit of work on committees, so minimal has been his involvement. But, whatever his motivation, this is hardly a great political loss to Mrs May and her Party.
And no, there won’t be any “snap general election”.
There are many reasons for this. First, is that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would need to be either invoked (a two thirds majority) or repealed (a simple majority). This would, either way, involve in practice a motion of no confidence in Theresa May’s Government being moved by Theresa May! It would be political madness.
What’s more, Labour would be terrified of a General Election right now. They would suffer huge losses to Ukip in the North of England and to the Conservatives in the South and South East. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and Labour MPs would like to enjoy three and half more years of their comfortable life, thank you very much.
The implementation of the Boundary Review, which will reduce the number of Parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600 and make them much more similar in size, ending years of gerrymandering in Labour’s favour, will likely give 25 or more seats to the Conservatives, but that doesn’t come into force until 2018.
A general election now would be fought on the terms of Brexit, but would be unlikely to give a clear mandate as to what the detailed terms of our departure from the European Union should be. Its outcome would be unclear and unhelpful. What’s more, it would likely cause huge divisions within the Conservative Party.
From the point of view of those who want the road out of Europe to be travelled rapidly, a General Election would delay everything by several months, it would cause financial instability and see share prices and Sterling fall in value. The “Remoaners” who still dream of over-turning the referendum result, will not lightly subject themselves to the wrath of the Brexit voters angry at what they perceive are attempts to flout the will of the people.
Even the Scottish Nationalist Party will sit on its hands. It holds as many Westminster Parliamentary seats as it can win in Scotland. The only way from here for them is down, and with the Conservatives snapping at their heels in several constituencies, the Scottish Haggis is as unlikely to vote for Burns Night as the Labour Turkey is for Christmas.
Perhaps, when the Brexit deal is concluded, the Boundary Commission changes have been implemented, and Labour leftist entryists, Momentum, have finished torturing moderate Labour MPs through the reselection process, the landscape may look different. But right now, don’t be tempted to have a flutter on a snap poll. The last time I checked the likelihood of a snap general election at the bookies, it had “soared” from just 5% to a still very low 7.5%. Let’s keep this in proportion.
Theresa May has a job to do, perhaps the most serious job since Winston Churchill took the nation through the Second World War. Our international trade, our place in the world, our domestic industries and even our defence will all be affected by the road to Brexit. The Prime Minister should concentrate on delivering the best possible outcome for Britain. If she fails to do so, if she allows herself to be distracted and begins to play political games, the electorate will round on her and her popularity will plummet.
The people of Britain have made a decision; a tough and grown up decision. It should be implemented in a tough and grown up way by our politicians. If that means Theresa May, in the best interests of the best outcome, holding her cards close to her chest rather than letting Angela Merkel and John Claude-Junker read them over Parliament’s shoulder, then so be it. Theresa May must stand firm, appeal the High Court decision in the Supreme Court and whip her Parliamentary troops back into order.
As for Stephen Phillips, may he enjoy spending more well-deserved time with his family.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Universe of 11th November 2016.
Cllr Chris Whitehouse KSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West).