February 24, 2017 / 12:50 PM / 9 months ago

Local election results mark peak for Theresa May

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - British voters tend to view parliamentary by-elections as an opportunity to express their displeasure with the sitting government. So the ruling Conservative Party’s victory over rival Labour in the northwestern constituency of Copeland is an impressive endorsement of Prime Minister Theresa May. It might also mark the peak of her popularity. Her reluctance to call an early election could prove a mistake.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May smiles during her meeting with French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve inside 10 Downing Street, London, Britain, February 17, 2017. REUTERS/Tim Ireland/Pool - RTSZ5SH

It’s risky to attach nationwide significance to voting in a single district. Even so, it has been 35 years since the incumbent government last gained a British parliamentary seat outside a nationwide election. The result confirms deep scepticism of the Labour Party and its hapless leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is also an endorsement of May’s administration - and her determined approach to executing Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Yet it is hard to see how May’s standing improves from here. Her vision of a “global Britain” will be tested by the messy reality of negotiating Britain’s EU exit. Economic growth, which has remained surprisingly robust following the June referendum, is likely to slow. Rising inflation will eat into consumers’ incomes. Business investment has been shrinking for a year. Meanwhile, political opposition will not remain toothless. Labour could replace Corbyn, or the party might split.

All these factors suggest May should cash in on her relative popularity and call a general election. She has consistently dismissed the idea. The practical objection is that British law fixes parliamentary terms at five years. Overcoming this would require May to pass new legislation, or call a no-confidence vote in parliament with the intention of losing. Neither option is appealing. Besides, the mere threat of an election - and the prospect of an increased Conservative majority - may be a more effective tool.

Yet as long as Britain’s two-party system remains intact, the pendulum will eventually swing. This can take a long time: after the by-election victory in 1982, the Conservative Party won three general elections and remained in power for 15 years. May, who has never faced the electorate as leader of her party, will never have a better chance to secure a mandate.

On Twitter twitter.com/peter_tl

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