The Brexit election

by Roberto Pucciano

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May opted to strengthen her hand this week by calling a surprise General Election for 8 June 2017. The sudden move caught her colleagues, rival political parties and the media off-guard. However, the prime minister quickly received the two-thirds majority in the House of Commons that she needed to override the Fixed-term Parliaments Act thanks to the Conservative party’s parliamentary majority and the backing of most of the opposition. The upcoming contest will be Britain’s third national consultation (and second General Election) in three years, reflecting the turbulence that the country has dropped into since the end of the Blair-Brown era in 2010.

The cautious Theresa May had long denied that she planned to call a national election for party political advantage, behaviour the Fixed-term Parliaments Act had been brought in to curb. But a number of political facts lay behind the UK leader’s calculation that making a U-turn on this issue was worth the risk of undermining her reputation for plain-speaking. The obvious one is a naked grab for political advantage; polls show a large gap in the opinion polls between the ruling Conservatives and the main opposition Labour party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn also compares unfavourably to May in voters’ minds. If the polls are right, something which can be called into question after recent election results, the opposition Labour party could be about to suffer a historic defeat that would leave May with a big enough parliamentary majority that she could ignore both the opposition and her own party rebels.

It is just this fear which has led some UK opposition figures to call for a nationwide united front against the Conservatives, though this option has been officially rejected by opposition party leaders for now. But a strong parliamentary majority and an extra couple of years in power (the next UK General Election date would move from 2020, just a year after Brexit negotiations must be finished by, to 2022) would also strengthen May’s hand against Brussels. She had previously talked tough towards the EU, saying that rather than accept a bad deal Britain would walk away from negotiations. That sounds a lot more credible coming from an elected prime minister with a person mandate, a large parliamentary majority and an extra two years in office than it does now.

The lack of a personal mandate had been a particular difficult for the unelected UK prime minister, who came to power by winning the internal Conservative party race to replace David Cameron. The former Tory leader resigned in the wake of Brexit after his campaign to keep Britain in the European Union (EU) was rejected. May found herself shackled to an out of date Conservative manifesto written before Brexit rewrote the country’s political landscape and vulnerable to charges that she was an illegitimate leader to be making such profound choices for the UK. Gordon Brown, May’s predecessor but one as prime minister, also found his authority challenged by the fact that he had inherited Tony Blair’s position as Britain’s leader rather than won his own mandate. As a result, his Labour government was widely seen as sclerotic and timid, exhausted by a long period in office and out of new ideas.

Finally, a General Election would allow May the chance to remake the Conservative party in her own image right at the start of her time in power, since Conservative Central Office has a strong influence on the kind of people who become Conservative MPs. The issue of Europe has undermined the last two Conservative party leaders to govern Britain (Sir John Major and David Cameroon) and bedevilled the party during its long spell in the political wilderness between the two men’s’ terms of office. May was a reluctant supporter of the ‘Remain’ camp last year but has embraced the message of the electorate by coming out as a ‘hard’ Brexiteer since her election as party leader. A fresh generation of Conservative MPs in her new image could finally bury the Europe issue that has torn at Conservatives for decades now.

Overall therefore Prime Minister May has calculated that calling a snap General Election and winning a quick victory is a low-risk high-reward political gamble, the sort the cautious Tory leader prefers to take. She is helped by the fact that the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn is a veteran Eurosceptic leading a party whose MPs are overwhelmingly pro-European. Many Labour MPs are half-hearted about their leader and the Labour Parliamentary Party’s morale is so low that some Labour politicians in marginal constituencies have briefed the national media that they are considering standing down from their seats and not seeking re-election. As long as the opinion polls are right Theresa May has therefore taken a very safe decision; however the history books are full of leaders who felt similarly before beginning a disastrous. The UK’s politicians will only know which one it is when the UK’ voters deliver their verdict on the Prime Minister in June.

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