Theresa May managed to make history this week by breaking the record for largest government defeat. With no clear Plan B, speculation is rising that we could be heading towards an early election. This week Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill asked Whitehall chiefs to draw up contingency plans for a snap poll in the event that May decides to go to the country. Meanwhile, Tory MPs – including ministers – have warned their local associations to prepare for the prospect of a vote as early as next month.
As I write in the i paper, an election is a scenario that government figures now see as a potential way – if not a particularly desirable one – to break the deadlock. Visitors to CCHQ report that the prospect of an early election is being talked of. Not everyone is thrilled by the idea – ‘kill me now’, sighs one staffer.
Unlike the last time the Tories prepared for the polls, there is little in the way of high expectation, instead there’s a sense of dread. The expectation is that May would lead the party into any such election – ahead of the confidence vote against her, May only promised Tory MPs not to lead them into an election in a few years time. There’s even been talk in certain government circles of offering Corbyn an election in the month of May on the condition that Labour vote for the withdrawal agreement. However, as one aide points out, given that there might be one if they don’t vote for it there’s little in the way of incentive.
Regardless, some in government reluctantly see it as a possible way to avoid an irreparable party split over Brexit. If Theresa May can only get a Commons majority for a Brexit deal by aligning to Labour’s Brexit position of agreeing a permanent customs union which rules out free trade deals, many ministers and MPs will view it as a price not worth paying. ‘If it’s a choice between splitting the party over trade, risking no deal, or taking a chance on the polls and getting a deal through, it has to be the latter,’ argues a government advisor.