Ian Swanson: May’s quest for mandate is not so straightforward

Theresa May's announcement took everyone by surprise. Picture: AFP/Getty
Theresa May's announcement took everyone by surprise. Picture: AFP/Getty
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After months of insisting in her best “no nonsense” voice that a general election was out of the question any time before the scheduled date of 2020, Theresa May took everyone by surprise with her sudden, untrailed announcement that the country will be going to the polls on June 8.

As long as she can get a two-thirds majority in the Commons today, it’s all systems go. In Scotland, it will be the sixth time people have been asked to vote in less than three years.

The Prime Minister is obviously disregarding her previous concerns about the disruptive effect this could have on the Brexit process.

Faced with the Scottish Parliament’s proposal for Indyref 2, she declared now was not the time. But now apparently is the time for the whole of the UK to go through another – potentially divisive – campaign just two years after the last general election and one year after the EU referendum.

Mrs May hopes to win a bigger majority and strengthen her hand in taking Brexit forward.

But while she hopes the election will focus on the UK coming out of the EU, the campaign in Scotland is going to be just as much, if not more, about Indyref 2. The SNP will be seeking a mandate for a second referendum while the anti-independence parties, particularly the Tories, will argue the election is an opportunity to register their opposition to another vote.

The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats last time and the signs are that the party will hold on to most of them.

But Labour’s Ian Murray is confident he can win again in Edinburgh South and there is speculation Labour might also be able to take back East Lothian, where Iain Gray was able to fend off the SNP challenge at last year’s Holyrood election.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have high hopes of winning Edinburgh West, which they lost in 2015 to the SNP’s Michelle Thomson, who then became embroiled in allegations over her property business. The Lib Dems’ hopes are boosted by Alex Cole-Hamilton’s victory in the equivalent Holyrood seat last year.

And the Tories will be hoping to build on Ruth Davidson’s success in Edinburgh Central at last year’s elections. They believe their best prospect is Edinburgh South-West, Alistair Darling’s former seat, won by the SNP’s Joanna Cherry, which is roughly the seat once held by the late David McLetchie in the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs May could be hoping that across the UK the election will produce a majority of around 100 seats for the Tories. But election guru John Curtice argues it could be a lot smaller than that. He says despite Labour’s dire poll ratings, many of the seats it holds are safe ones. And he points out that some Conservative voters will not be enthusiastic about endorsing a hard Brexit.

It may also be worth noting that while there were two recent polls putting the Tories 21 points ahead of Labour, there was another showing the gap narrowing to nine points.

And one of the surveys giving the Tories the bigger lead also found strong support for some Labour policies – over 70 per cent in favour of a £10 an hour minimum wage and over 60 per cent for a 50p top rate of income tax.

Everything may not be quite as straightforward as Mrs May would like to think.