How Theresa May could lose the general election (it’s much more likely than the media think)

The Conservatives are well ahead in the polls. The opinion polls which, moreover, have a pretty good record at getting the winner of the general election right.

Yes, you read that right. There have been nineteen general elections since polling begun in Britain, and the polls got sixteen out of the nineteen right (full data here). That’s 84% correct, or a top mark in most exams.

What’s more, the errors in the polls – in both the sixteen and the other three (1970, 1992 and 2015) – have been consistent. In the sixteen the polls got Labour generally slightly too high and in the three big misses, they got Labour much too high. So even if the polls are out in the way they’ve been three times out of nineteen in the past that’s still bad news for Labour, as the pattern is that the result will be even worse for Labour than the polls say.

Or to look at the data another way, as I’ve pointed out before, almost all of the breathless horse-race coverage by journalists of British general elections is irrelevant as the consistent picture is not of election results being decided by the election campaign but by the simple rule of whoever is in the lead months in advance goes on to win. You can sleep through the whole election campaign and not really miss anything that helps explain the result.

So it will take a once-in-a-century type dramatic event to stop the Conservatives winning.

Handily for those who wish to see that, we do have a once-in-a-century type dramatic event lined up. In fact, one that is unprecedented in its scale such that ‘never before in our democratic history’ is an accurate label.

The event? The imminent Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decision on whether or not to go ahead with prosecuting over thirty Conservatives. The exact timing of this decision is not known, although The Independent has reported: “Any charges would have to be made before the date of the general election”, whilst a CPS source told Buzzfeed something similar – and there has also been talk of the decision happening before the close of nominations.*

This scandal involves not just any old Conservatives, but numerous MPs, senior party officials and even one of Theresa May’s closest and most long-standing advisers. This is not a few members off in some obscure local party who get called “senior” in an effort to make things seem exciting. This is proper senior.

So far, the media has given only very little attention to the fact that the announcement is due to come before polling day. In all the coverage of Theresa May‘s decision to call the general election, there was almost nothing of the sort, “well it’s a huge gamble given what the CPS is up to”.

Ah, you might think – perhaps that’s because everyone in the know is sure that the CPS will decide not to prosecute.

Except no, we already know that there is a very strong case against many if not all of the thirty plus. That is because the Electoral Commission has already investigated in detail, published its report and levied punishment based on the evidence standing up to close scrutiny.

The Commission was only looking at the national spending returns it is responsible for. But what it repeatedly concluded, across numerous seats – including by-elections and ones visited by the Conservative Battlebus during the general election – was that the Conservatives wrongly included spending in their national returns which should have gone in the constituency returns, making those constituency returns wrong. They levied a record-breaking fine on the basis in part of those national returns errors. They didn’t take action over the inextricably-linked constituency return errors because that isn’t in their remit. That’s for the police and the CPS.

So we know the CPS is considering charges against over 30 Conservatives (and some of the most commonly cited reasons as to why they might not go ahead are wrong). We know that the Electoral Commission has already found the evidence to be solid enough to levy a record fine. We know the CPS is getting right up to its deadline for deciding.

What impact would the news that, say, a dozen Conservative MPs, one of Theresa May’s closest advisors and a string of officials are all being sent to court on charges of lying and cheating their way to electoral victory have on the election? Even if (as might be the case) the news broke just in time for the Conservatives to drop those MPs and nominate new candidates, that would still leave an enormous scandal, perhaps even a bigger one as dropping candidates could be seen by many as an admission that even the Conservatives accept these are serious, credible charges.

Perhaps the CPS will decide not to prosecute. The CPS could come to a different view of the facts than the Commission. Or decide that although they think the law was broken that the only charges they can proceed on require proving a dishonest motivation and that won’t be possible. Certainly possible, but by no means certain.

Which is why there’s a serious chance that the largest British political scandal ever will land all over the media just before polling day. Never before in our democratic history would so many MPs all be up for prosecution at the same time as part of the same scandal – and one about rigging an election, no less.

The Conservatives may be well ahead in the polls, but their victory is far from certain.


* The exact deadlines are somewhat obscured by the fact that the 1983 Representation of the People Act sets down a one year deadline from the suspected offence having been committed. In this case, that means – most likely, although this is not a point of law that has been specifically tested – the date on which the relevant election expense return was submitted, although there could be an argument about it being when the return was signed by the agent and candidate, which could have been an earlier date. The date of submission, or indeed of signing, will vary between different constituencies. That one year deadline would have expired anyway by now, but there is a legal power – which has been widely exercised – to extend it. It can be extended to no more than 24 months after the offence. So if you take the extreme case of the last date on which expense returns could have been submitted and then add the maximum 24 months, you get to slightly after the 2017 general election polling day. However, the media reports so far have repeatedly pointed to some if not all of the decisions being made before then. [Note: this footnote added and slight edits made to the original post to clarify the deadlines point as it attracted particular attention when this post was first published.]

16 responses to “How Theresa May could lose the general election (it’s much more likely than the media think)”

  1. Won’t they just push back the announcement till after the election, I would imagine that they are under serious pressure to do so.

    • Mike: It is when you, therefore, spend more money than the law allows. Breaking spending limits is rigging the election in your own favour.

      • There are files at cps where spending limits have not been breached. Some of that 30 (I know) have only to apply to move expenses from one column to another. From national to the local with no breach.

  2. I think the likely scenario is that the polls narrow considerably towards polling day as this scandal unfolds and Teresa May continues to refuse a debate etc. This will allow the Tory election machine and the right wing press to push the increasingly likeness of Jeremy Corbyn as PM which ultimately pushes the election strongly back to the Tories in the final week or so. Could be an election more like 92 than 83. But a big Tory win seems the end result.

  3. Yes they will try but I would bet my pension on the fact teresa may and the cabinet already know they will prosecute.
    This is the real reason the election was called losing her majority would be damming for her leadership, the mandarins in whitehall will already know with their contacts in the cps.
    The lib dems should benefit in large numbers

  4. For what it is worth, I think the GE was called because if the potential of the CPS prosecuting. Initially, the date I saw for the announcement in the press was 12th June. If that has changed, it could explain why she was do shaky in PMQs. Whether she will lose as a result is difficult go predict, but I think it would certainly refuce her majority.

  5. The Conservative Party expenses problem has been a wonk story. It has been unreported — all credit to Michael Crick, but unlike his Militant books, this story isn’t going far at the Daily Mail.

    And I genuinely feel sympathetic to some Conservative Party candidates and agents under threat of legal action. If they agreed to a bus load of activists from central office turning up to help, they didn’t necessarily agree to make fraudulent election expense declarations. The grunt workers will be made responsible for decisions made at central office, where the grunt workers didn’t have a lot of power.

    I hope that the CPS chooses not to prosecute unless there is evidence of egregious cheating. No prosecution unless the candidate or agent understood that they were receiving a campaign benefit substantially greater than the one declared.

    As it stands, it appears that nobody who organised the cheating faces prosecution.

  6. Doesn’t the public impact depend in large part on how the news of the election-rigging is supported? Given the political leaning of most of the press, my guess is that they would downplay the story, and point at any unsubstantiated minor allegations against the other main parties, rather than risk endangering a Tory majority!

  7. It’s wrongly calculated expenses, not delebrately, so they will get huge fines. I don’t think PM will lose GE 2017. Frankly, look at current poll, Labour is second. If Conservatives lose this election who will be next PM, Jeremy Corbyn ?

    • Your thesis may be right BUT Mays constituency is a staunch REMAIN one. To have their MP break ranks after having been remain prior to her leadership will not go down well. The same goes for Philip Hammond. Same scenario. The blues may not lose the election but there will be blood letting at all levels. Who knows; we may have to find another leader to carry on this farce they call brexit WHICH they will never win. You only have to look at Greece post referendum to see how glaringly obvious that is. In 40 years of voting blue I refuse to support this shambolic party. Lib Dems get my vote.

  8. I don’t agree this will have any meaningful impact. The ‘wrongdoing’ is too complicated and nebulous for many people to get aerated about. I suspect that for most people like me, the wrongdoing seems shades of right and wrong and if it’s not something we can relate to and doesn’t cross personal boundaries it won’t make much difference. It could just be I’m thick or have warped values but in all honesty I don’t think I’m that different from most people ie I only know it’s wrong because someone’s telling me it breaks a law. Sorry.

  9. I hate to be a cynic ,however there is not a chance the ruling British Elite will allow any of these charges to be advanced.
    Nothing can be allowed to threaten the ruling 1% elite.
    So do not get your hopes up nobody will face charges and even if there is a sacrificial lamb the media will kill the story

  10. Let’s consider this argument in two versions: the “hard” and the “soft”.

    1. The hard version assumes that 30 otherwise safe Conservative seats will wind up with no Conservative to vote for, ceding their representation to Labour, LibDem or maybe Mr Spoilt Ballot. I think it’s completely inconceivable that the CPS would act so as to disenfranchise large numbers of voters, and potentially reverse the outcome of a massively significant national election. If swift justice for the 30 possible expense fiddlers requires injustice for 65 million UK citizens, they’ll go with justice delayed.

    (To make the point more dramatically: imagine if French prosecutors had reliable grounds for charging Emmanuel Macron with banking fraud, and could force him to concede the Elysée to Marine Le Pen. Do you really think they’d do it this week? Surely they’d allow the French people to vote first, even if they had to start impeachment proceedings against him the very next day.)

    2. The soft version assumes that so many voters will be, to use Captain Renault’s word, “shocked” to find out that their MP overspent on election expenses that they’ll make a 180º switch in their political preferences. I think voters are far more worldly than that. Most probably assume that their MP fiddles his/her expenses a bit, cheats on his/her spouse, watches porn, drinks too much, and takes illegal drugs. This is the post-privacy internet age, and the austere moral probity of Mr Gladstone is no longer required or expected. The “economy stupid” re-election of the palpably corrupt philanderer Bill Clinton was probably the moment when everyone should have realised as much.

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