May's bold election gambit
British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a snap general election, moving up the date of that ballot by two years. Her announcement was a surprise, particularly since only a month ago she had ruled out such a maneuver. The decision reflects the need for May to strengthen her hand domestically as she enters into difficult negotiations over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. It was a bold and likely successful move, given the state of the opposition in Britain.
Britain last held a general election in May 2015, in which the ruling Conservative Party won a surprisingly large victory. It claimed 330 seats and 36.9 percent of the vote, a sufficient margin of victory to claim a working majority in Parliament. Despite that victory, Prime Minister David Cameron then miscalculated and a year later held a referendum on Britain’s EU membership to quell a revolt among his back-benchers. In an equally stunning result, Britain voted to pull out of the EU, an outcome that forced Cameron to resign and propelled May into 10 Downing Street last July.
While May was a member of the “remain” camp (meaning she voted to stay in the EU), she accepted the mandate to negotiate the terms of Britain’s withdrawal. The lead-up to London’s formal announcement in March of its intention to withdraw — technically referred to as invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon — has been messy with the Conservatives proving to be as divided as the country as a whole over the terms of the negotiations. May has accused opponents of undermining the British negotiating position, charging that “division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.”
The electoral calendar contributed to the power of the opposition. Before her reversal this week, Britain had been slated to hold elections in 2020, a year after it would have left the EU. The relatively short time between the two events would have reduced May’s bargaining position because she would face a public referendum on the negotiations much sooner. Under the new election timetable, the next general election need not be held until 2022, which gives the government two more years for the impact of Brexit to be absorbed by the electorate.
This logic prompted her turnabout on elections, despite repeated frank statements that she had no intention of calling an early ballot. As she explained upon making her decision: “We need a general election and we need one now. We have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done … before the detailed talks begin.”
The Conservatives are expected to win big in the June vote. Currently, the opposition is disorganized, with the Labour Party struggling under Jeremy Corbyn, its hard-left leader. Most polls show the Conservatives with a 20-point lead over Labour. When asked who they would prefer to lead the country, May bests Corbyn by orders of magnitude rather than just percentages: Respondents are nearly four times more likely to prefer May to Corbyn. Early indications suggest that the Conservatives could double or even quadruple their current majority in Parliament.
If that is the case, then May goes into negotiations with the EU with a stronger hand. She will have received affirmation at the polls for her approach to the Brexit talks, which should quiet some of the objectors from her own party. Equally important, she will have a larger majority in Parliament, which will allow her to lose some of the die-hard opponents of her negotiating position.
The decision to go to the polls is not risk-free, however. While current polls give the prime minister confidence, U.K. polls have a checkered history, having badly anticipated the results of the 2015 ballot and generally concluding that Britain would remain in the EU in last year’s referendum. The Conservatives should be concerned that opponents might flock to the moribund Liberal Democrats; the Lib Dems practically self-destructed after joining the Conservatives in government in 2010, falling from 57 seats to just eight. Yet the party claimed that 5,000 new members signed up immediately after May announced the early election.
A revitalized Liberal Democrats could team up with the Green Party and Labour to offer a genuine alternative to the Conservatives. There is reportedly already discussion of a “progressive alliance” among them.
With opposition to Brexit high among the Scottish National Party and the Irish Republican Sinn Fein, there is also room for negotiations among those groups and Conservatives on the terms of their future engagement with U.K. and the EU. Given the gulf over the Brexit — only England and Wales voted in favor — the SNP has demanded another vote on Scottish independence, while Republicans in Northern Ireland are calling for a special status for their province under Brexit.
A wild card in future scenarios is the role of the UK Independence Party, one of the driving forces behind Brexit, but which currently has no seats in Parliament. It could back the Conservatives, especially if the prime minister sticks to the “hard Brexit” position that calls for a clean break with the EU. A change is possible — as May’s reversal on the snap election makes clear.