Like the EU referendum before it, this general election has been called because of pressures within the Conservative Party. The Tories' current opinion poll lead is necessary to the decision, just as polls predicting a remain victory were to Cameron's, but this is less opportunism by May, a politician not noted for risk-taking, than necessity born of vulnerability. I had assumed the window of opportunity for the Prime Minister to call an early general election would close with the invocation of Article 50. Once the deed was done, momentum would take over and the government would have a relatively free hand till 2019. Two things have altered this situation. First, the "hardness" of the government's stance has increased the likelihood of a rebellion by centrist Tories, other than Kenneth Clarke, while the shrill attitude of the Brexit "ultras", reflected in the tabloid press, has limited Theresa May's room for manoeuvre. Circumstances have pulled the Conservative Party in opposite directions. Second, once it became clear that the "divorce terms" would take up most of the 24-month negotiation period, the danger of a 2020 general election falling at a sensitive moment - the UK out of the EU, with a costly settlement and nothing to show in respect of a trade deal - became too great to discount.
With a small Commons majority of 16 (which could conceivably have become even smaller if the investigations into 2015 election fraud led to by-election defeats in Tory seats), the May government cannot afford the risk of even a modest-scale backbench rebellion, which means today's announcement is an admission that the strategy of side-lining the Commons cannot hold without a larger majority that could absorb the strain of dissent. Contrary to her claims about a troublesome opposition, the prime minister's chief fear is that she might be undermined by her own side. This may mean she anticipates compromises with the EU27 that are likely to prompt a rebellion by the ultras, or perhaps a harsher outcome that would be likely to prompt rebellion by centrists (a mixture of the two is quite possible). That she wants the election conducted during the "phoney war" period, before substantive negotiations with the EU27 get underway, indicates that she seeks not only popular confirmation of her authority as Prime Minister but a carte blanche as regards the progress of Brexit. Don't expect much in the way of a domestic manifesto.
The aim of the election is therefore to grow the number of loyalist Tory MPs to the point where she can command a majority regardless of dissent at the margins. The risk is that a new intake might include more potential rebels, so we may see bloody selection battles in certain constituencies with candidates of strong principle being marginalised by loyalists (there is clearly no way back for Douglas Carswell). Apart from the irony of selection battles turning out to be more significant in the Conservative Party than Labour, this also means that the idea of personal loyalty to the party leader is becoming paramount. What we are witnessing is not merely an authoritarian turn in style, which could be attributed to the personality of the Prime Minister, but the institutional evolution of a presidential and plebiscitary system. While you could find hints of this in the behaviour of previous British PMs, notably Thatcher and Blair, these were expressions of ego rather than political dynamics, and they tended to prompt scorn.
Margaret Thatcher may have been an instinctive authoritarian who divided the world into "them" and "us", but she went too far when she equated loyalty to herself with loyalty to the party, prompting her defenestration. May has gone further and equated herself with the "national interest". Given her previous position on the EU, this is chutzpah of Vicar of Bray proportions. 2017 will be the first general election fought on the basis that we should willingly hand authority to an individual to do with as she sees fit: "Brexit means whatever I say it means". Previous prime minister's have fought for re-election on the slogan, "Give me the tools to finish the job", but at least we had a reasonable idea of what they meant by that "job". The often sphinx-like May has been reluctant to allow herself to be pinned down, has resorted to pious platitudes when asked to articulate a vision, and has shown a prickly anger towards any who have questioned her competence or sincerity.
We assume that dictatorship presupposes charisma, the ability to sway the crowd, but a querulous, narrow-minded snob is just as likely to lead us down that path. Dictatorship is usually a product of the bureaucracy of executive government rejecting restraint, not a populist insurgency. While Theresa May isn't as advanced along the road of elective dictatorship as Viktor Orban or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, she has started to emulate them stylistically with her claims that the nation is uniting behind her and that her personal values are those of the nation as a whole. It is a short step to then claim that you embody the will of the people, or at least smile graciously as your epigones shout it in the press. Many have noted the negative impact that Brexit is having on the calibre of government, from hogging the legislative bandwidth to disrupting the civil service, but the more worrying impact is on the structure of government, notably the further centralisation of power in Number 10 and the disregard for Parliamentary oversight.
Key to an increased Tory majority will be getting the stay-at-homes who drifted away after 1997 but returned for the referendum to turn out again. This means making the general election a de facto second referendum, but without suggesting that Brexit can be reversed. In other words, scream if you want to go faster. The danger is that some of these backwoods reactionaries may believe the job already done, and could either turn their attention to other domestic issues, which could help Labour, or lapse back into abstention. UKIP will probably be battered, but the assumption that their votes will largely head to the Tories may prove ill-founded. Again, what will matter is the number that choose abstention, particularly in marginals. The LibDems are predictably chipper, on the grounds that the only way is up from their near-death experience in 2015, but a Brexit-flavoured election will not help them recover seats in the South West that voted leave, while there are too few seats like Richmond-on-Thames to provide a remainer surge.
Though most pundits are busy writing-off Labour, it is worth noting a few ironies that may lead to them performing better than expected. The anti-Corbyn crowd in the PLP know that disloyalty doesn't win votes in a general election, so they will have to get behind the party manifesto if not the leader. The media will still stir and goad, but the limited air-time accorded Labour will inevitably shift away from plots to policies, simply because the usual suspects will not be able to oblige. Parliament will be dissolved on the 3rd of May, the day before the local council elections, which means that the raft of policies outlined recently for that campaign, from free school meals to a £10 minimum wage, will provide a solid base for the general election manifesto. These policies are also likely to get more of an airing as the media treat the council elections as an undercard to the Parliamentary election, rather than just the latest chapter in the Corbyn story (no matter how bad the result in May is, the leader isn't going to change before the June poll).
Given that Theresa May clearly isn't a gambler, it is hard to believe that the result in June will deliver anything other than an increased Tory majority, though it could well be smaller than the 100+ seats that current opinion polling suggests. In terms of protecting her back, she probably needs a buffer of at least 50 MPs, so a relatively poor result for the Conservative Party, i.e. one in which they take fewer than 30 seats from Labour, would still be enough to consolidate May's position and provide her with sufficient assurance to allow her to trim the sails of the good ship Brexit as she sees fit. Of course, this doesn't rule out the prospect of a spectacular cock-up between now and 2022 that might make such calculations redundant, but it also doesn't rule out the possibility of May carrying out an executive coup if she thinks the ship is heading for the rocks. A night of the long knives, in which Messrs Davis, Johnson and Fox are sacrificed, would cement her authority, and I suspect that maintaining authority is ultimately the prime directive for this prime minister.