Theresa May’s Irresistible Election Gamble

April 19, 2017 12:15 PM
Photo Credit: 
REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

In calling a snap parliamentary election on June 8, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain could not resist the lure of her double-digit opinion poll leads to seek a mandate for her plans to lead the country out of the European Union. She also has an urgent political need for a stronger personal power base from which to stare down her own Conservative right-wingers clamoring for a hard line in the negotiations with Brussels over the Brexit terms.

May’s gambit is politically cynical for a leader who has repeatedly vowed not to call for such an election. But her action is also entirely understandable and indeed the decent thing to do. She needs a personal mandate on the eve of one of the most momentous events in UK history in at least a generation. If her party wins in June, she could have until at least 2022 to oversee the Brexit process.

May is the early favorite to win a sizable election victory, which could substantially increase her Conservative Party majority. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to believe that such a triumph would give her a new advantage in negotiations with the remaining 27 members of the European Union, the so-called EU-27. The logic of the Article 50 negotiations still applies: If there is no deal, the United Kingdom would suffer disproportionally. Any boost to May from an election victory will not make EU-27 negotiators drop their demands for Britain to maintain the legal status of EU and UK citizens after Brexit. Also to be negotiated is the scope of the financial settlement of the UK departure.

Ironically, it may be in the EU-27’s interest that May wins a mandate enabling her to stare down her more wild-eyed Brexiters, who would prefer to see the United Kingdom crash out of the European Union rather than give into any of Brussels’ demands. Only a handsomely reelected prime minister could make the quick concessions on immigration and finances necessary to get an Article 50 deal that the hardliners may find unpalatable. Once reelected, May will be able to dictate the terms of Brexit to her own party. She might push forward with the hard Brexit she has discussed previously. But she might also put softer versions of Brexit back on the table, reducing the chances of an impasse in the negotiations. Certainly, a reelected Theresa May would reduce the risk that no deal is reached with the EU-27, which alone should reduce economic uncertainty. The negotiations are not expected until after the next German elections in September.

But the early election will come at a politically volatile time. Given the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservative lead in national polls might not translate into as many seats as expected. Perhaps even a nationally weakened Labour Party will manage to hold onto many of its traditional safe seats, now that the UK Independence Party has become a spent political force. And perhaps a resurgent Liberal Democratic party can ride a wave of former Remain voters towards a strong result in the more affluent urban areas, especially if centrist pro-EU Labour voters abandon Jeremy Corbin’s hard-left platform and moderate Conservatives are turned off by May’s hard Brexit rhetoric and social conservatism.

In Northern Ireland, the impending elections upset an already tense political situation, raising the possibility of an election victory for the nationalist party Sinn Fein, a development that could further destabilize politics there. Meanwhile the Scottish National Party will likely relish the opportunity to campaign on the promise of another referendum on Scotland breaking from the United Kingdom, knowing that would likely crush their opponents and obtain a stronger political mandate in future negotiations with London.

All politics is local though, as the saying goes. Perhaps the biggest uncertainty in the election is the role of Brexit in the thinking of voters. Article 50, sanctioning divorce proceedings, has now been launched. Only a highly unlikely landslide against May and the Conservatives could reverse it. British voters may not seek a rerun of the Brexit campaign. Instead they may turn their attention to the traditional domestic bread-and-butter issues of UK politics—the functioning of the National Health Service, rising income inequality, education, and the dominance of London, etc. If British voters have already moved on after the Brexit vote, all other issues are in play.