Tom Richmond: Why May must hold firm as MPs clamour for early poll

IT has not taken long for jittery Tory backbenchers to get restless about Theresa May's leadership.

Theresa May at last week's EU summit.

One hundred days after she became Prime Minister, speculation about a snap election refuses go away. “She should do what her opponents least want,” one Conservative MP told me.

These unhelpful – even selfish – calls will intensify as Mrs May endures, potentially, the toughest week of her premiership to date – well, the toughest until political events next conspire against her fledgling Government.

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The demolition of the Jungle refugee camp at Calais, and whether Britain should have welcomed more asylum seekers rather than questioning the age and status of some immigrants, appears to contradict the compassionate Conservatism espoused by Mrs May, as the BBC’s self-serving football pundit Gary Lineker takes it upon himself to provide his own running commentary and label UK families as ‘racist’ for their scepticism and lack of generosity.

She then hosted the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as Nicola Sturgeon, and others, set out their own demands as the SNP threaten a second poll on Scottish independence.

And then there is today’s Cabinet sub-committee meeting to determine whether a third runaway should be built at Heathrow Airport – Tory MP and defeated Mayor of London candidate Zac Goldsmith, for one, is so opposed to expansion that he’s prepared to resign his seat under the flight path. Trust Mrs May’s luck that this issue, kicked into the long grass for years, should come to head on her watch at such a difficult time.

That’s just for starters. By the end of the week there will be even more problems as her MPs, and advisers, question whether a Commons majority of 12, plus the ad hoc support of the Democratic Ulster Unionists, is sustainable – or not. Those wanting an early election have come up with 10 reasons why Mrs May should go to the country, even though this would require Conservative MPs conspiring with opponents to pass a vote of confidence to circumvent the Fixed Term Parliament Act introduced by the coalition in 2010.

They range from concerns that the Government’s Brexit negotiating position will not secure Commons backing, to the polarising Heathrow decision, growing unease over HS2 and recognition that Labour will, at some point, have to reposition itself – it’s still odds against Jeremy Corbyn leading the Opposition into an election at 2020.

Yet there’s one over-riding reason why Theresa May would, in my opinion, be ill-advised to seek an early election – and that is trust.

When she launched her leadership campaign on June 30, one of her first utterances was to rule out an early election. To do so now would smack of opportunism and diminish the PM in the eyes of many – Gordon Brown never recovered his credibility after teasing his rivals about a possible poll in 2007.

From my soundings, there’s no clamour in the country for a general election – the only calls come from twitchy MPs in the marginals and those members of the commentariat struggling to accept that the Government’s job is not to provide endless material for the 24/7 news channels. In contrast, the public quite like the fact that Britain finally has a business-like leader who simply wants to get on with the job.

They acknowledge the PM’s calm authority and how she refused to buckle when the undiplomatic Jean Claude-Juncker, the European Commission president, blew a proverbial raspberry (and that’s being polite) when asked at last week’s EU summit about Mrs May’s 1am address to her European counterparts.

As Mrs May stressed, Britain is still a fully paid-up member of the European Union and should be treated as such until Brexit is complete. Contrast this with all those Europhiles still in awe of the EU despite a trade deal with Canada, seven years in the making, being scuppered by a tiny Belgian province. If there was another referendum, I venture even more people would vote to leave the EU.

Even if the Prime Minister called an election, there’s no guarantee the Tories would secure a sizeable majority – David Cameron’s unforeseen victory in 2015 came about, in part, because Ukip took a significant number of votes off Labour, the defeat of Ed Balls being a case in point. Conversely, large Parliamentary majorities can breed arrogance – Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair’s landslide exemplify this.

However Mrs May must not lose sight of her domestic agenda as the Government becomes bogged down by Brexit. The home front, notably her aspiration agenda, making the NHS fit for purpose and her planned curbs on the excesses of capitalism, is just as important as departure from the EU.

It won’t be easy. It just takes a handful of MPs to scupper any policy and the former awkward squad of Eurosceptics has been replaced by EU enthusiasts like the ex-ministers Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan who are clearly piqued that their services were not required by Mrs May.

However, the encouraging sign is that Britain does, in fact, have a Prime Minister who is made of sterner stuff than many of her fractious MPs as she finds her feet on the national and international stage.

And Theresa May should remember this. If she goes back on her word and seeks an early election, her two defining messages – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and 
a ‘a country that works not for a 
privileged few, but for every one of us’ – will also become redundant. Is that 
what she wants?