For the second time in 18 months, the country has to pay the price for a Prime Minister who has put the Tory party’s interests before the nation’s interests. Last year, I predicted that Theresa May would call a snap election this spring. And now she has.
So what next?
I have a suspicion that the surprise no one sees coming in this election will not be what happens inside the small, cramped circle where politicians and political parties live, but what happens when the voiceless millions of the moderate, progressive centre outside that circle demand to be heard. If you want to see what can happen when they do, look at what is happening now with Macron’s En Marche! movement in France.
It is worth examining for a moment what May actually said this week when she announced a general election.
An election was needed for the country, she claimed.
Why? We have a perfectly good Parliament with two years to run, doing its job scrutinising legislation which will affect our lives for years to come. We all know that May didn’t want Parliament to get involved at all, until the Supreme Court told her she had to. Now she wants an election which will give her a Parliament whose Tory majority is so big she can simply ignore it. Theresa May was prevented by the courts from bypassing Parliament. Now she wants to make it her poodle.
An election was needed to unite the nation, she said.
Some cheek! Coming from a Prime Minister who inherited a divided country and, with every act and word since, has widened the divisions further.
It was she who, in her first speeches as PM, laid into the supposed “liberal elite” who voted remain; she who said that those who thought themselves citizens of the world were citizens of nowhere; she who chose the most extreme and brutal form of Brexit which puts our country on the edge of the cliff and as far away from Europe as possible; she who, instead of trying to reach out to the 48 per cent who lost, then encouraged a campaign of insult to anyone who dared to raise their heads above the parapet and argue for a more moderate approach; she who has presided over a frightening rise in hate crime in Britain: she who, by moving her party lock, stock and barrel onto policy positions indistinguishable from Ukip (like grammar schools), has widened the divisions in British politics and left those of the moderate centre more voiceless and scattered than ever before in my political lifetime.
We do badly need a more united Britain. But those who believe that giving Theresa May’s Tories a bigger majority is the way to do it are indulging in the triumph of hope over our recent bitter experience of what she and they stand for.
In pictures: European Parliament Brexit discussions
Lastly, Theresa May claimed that an election would strengthen her hand in the coming EU negotiations. But the real reason is somewhat different. She knows perfectly well that there are very painful Brexit times ahead. She wants to get an election in before this happens so she can simply ignore the pain when it does happen – and reject and claim that she should consult anyone beyond her narrow circle about the final deal she reaches.
This election may seem like an exercise in democracy today – but it’s actually about giving Theresa May the means to ignore democracy tomorrow.
Nevertheless, now we have an election, like it or not. In which case, we Lib Dems say: bring it on!
We are ready for the fight and confident that, with civilised liberal values like tolerance, respect for others, moderation and the habit of compromise more at risk than ever before in my lifetime, this is a battle worth fighting and one we will relish.
We are inspired too by the thousands who have now come to join us. Our membership has doubled since the referendum, and it leapt by more than 1,000 in the hours after Theresa May’s announcement. And we are winning in the ballot box too, in by-elections both parliamentary and local.
Having had to eat my hat last time (for the record, I have eaten five), I am not in the business of making predictions. So instead I will make an appeal to my party. This is not the time for tribalism. I believe we can achieve great successes in the next weeks. But while Lib Dem victories are necessary for a fairer Britain, they are not sufficient.
The historic task before us is to be the catalyst for a political force capable of being a real opposition to the Tories. Labour cannot do that. And we cannot do it alone.
It’s time to reach out beyond our tribal barriers and build a wider progressive movement which can oppose and in time replace the Tories by giving a voice to the new voiceless in Britain – the thousands in politics and the millions beyond it who believe in the values of tolerance, internationalism, diversity and partnership, and do not believe these can be delivered by a divisive Tory Prime Minister with a bigger majority.
If we Lib Dems see that as our vision, we can turn what will be a good election into great one – perhaps, indeed, a historic one.
Paddy Ashdown is former leader of the Liberal Democrats