Academic reaction: Theresa May announces plans to call a general election

Academics at the University of Sheffield give their expert reaction after Prime Minister Theresa May today (18 April 2017) announced plan to call general election on Thursday 8 June 2017.

Dr Matt Wood, Deputy Director of the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield:

Aside from the election itself, this morning’s surprise announcement raises interesting questions about how we make big political decisions and who knows what, when and how. Should the Prime Minister be required to consult her Cabinet before calling an election? How often should elections be held and who should decide when? The Fixed Term Parliaments Act was meant to make elections more predictable and prevent market instability, but we had more of that this morning when the PM made her surprise announcement.

This all raises important questions about credibility and stability. How do we make sure our democracies are stable whilst ensuring democratic participation? Should politicians just get on with the job and be held accountable every five years, or do we need more input from the public on a day-to-day basis? Are there better, more democratic ways of making these big decisions without having a huge event like a general election, with the political circus that comes with it?

At the Crick Centre we aim to show that lots of innovations are available for improving democracy without just having an election. Citizens assemblies, online consultations, deliberation with stakeholders and so on can be useful complements and improve our democracy without everyone having to groan about yet another election.

Professor Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography at the University of Sheffield:

In calling for an early general election in June, Mrs May is showing an unexpected gambler's streak. But it's a gamble with the odds strongly in her favour. She faces a much weakened and internally divided opposition, and enjoys poll leads rarely seen in the mid-term of a long Parliament. She can point to the invocation of Article 50 as 'delivery' on the EU Referendum. But she has not yet had to endure the hard pounding of the detailed Brexit negotiations to come (with the risks of defeats and compromises which those negotiations will bring). Waiting 'tll May 2020 (the next date under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act) risks these advantages dissipating (Labour could pull itself together: Brexit negotiations could prove bloody). So the decision to go to the country now makes sense for her. Her chances might never be so good again.

If all goes to plan for her, she will gain the necessary vote in the Commons to hold the election (she needs support from two thirds of MPs, so needs her own backbench and a significant number of opposition MPs to vote for an early poll: she can be denied if the opposition decides to vote against, but then she wins too, as she can paint them as being, in Mrs Thatcher's words, 'frit'), the polls will be vindicated, and she will see her Parliamentary majority, and with it her personal authority, grow substantially (an asset within the party, and an asset when it comes to negotiation over Brexit).

But no election is entirely risk free. There is a (slim, but not impossible) chance that the polls may be exaggerating her and the Conservatives' current lead. But a failure to win well might undermine her position domestically and in Europe. And even in the context of a strong Conservative performance, it is likely that Scotland will once again turn to the SNP, placing the Union under further strain.