A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Uniting the Kingdom

For Theresa May, the UK snap election comes with little political risk, and potentially significant rewards.
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Ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations, British Prime Minister Theresa May hopes to strengthen her hand in Brussels with a political show of unity at home. Given the sorry state of the opposition, which can’t decide if it’s anti-Brexit or merely anti-”hard” Brexit or neither, she shouldn’t have much trouble.

© REUTERS/Chris Radburn/Pool

It’s been a difficult few months for Theresa May. The British prime minister has been rebuffed at every turn by her European counterparts as she has sought to secure special rights for the UK after Brexit. And while the other Europeans have presented a united front, she has appeared to be speaking for a divided Britain.

But though she faces obstacles abroad, May is riding high at home. Her Conservative party has been hovering at a 20-point lead above the opposition Labor Party, which is in a shambles. The proportion of the British public supporting Brexit has slightly increased, up to 55 percent support for May’s handling of the talks, compared to the referendum result of 52 percent last year.

With the polls at her back, it’s no wonder May decided this week to call a general election in about six weeks’ time. The most likely result of the election will be a landslide victory, which pundits predict could bring the Conservatives’ current 17-seat majority to something well over 100. The Tories could steal as many as 56 seats from Labor. Bookies are putting the odds of the Conservatives winning the most seats at 1/20.

This is not so much an indication of May’s strength – her personal likability polling numbers are not very high – but a reflection of the scorched-earth state of British politics. Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a disaster for the party, and does not command the loyalty of a majority of his own MPs. And although they are going up in the polls, the Liberal Democrats are still reeling from their past decision to form a governing coalition with the Tories. In a political landscape with only three significant parties, that makes the result of June 8 pre-ordained without some kind of political earthquake.

An Easy Mandate

What May wants from this election was clear from her speech last Tuesday: she believes an election victory will give her greater negotiating power, because she will then be acting on behalf of a personal mandate from the people.

At the moment she has never been elected to govern, taking the reins after David Cameron resigned in wake of the Brexit vote, and commanding a governing party with a slim majority has diminished her credibility with her European negotiating partners. They suspect she will not have the political capital to sell a Brexit deal at home. She has been so worried about this that she commanded MPs vote for their own sidelining last month, writing into legislation that they will not get a vote on the final Brexit deal.

European leaders seem to agree with May’s assessment of the potential for an election. Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said through his spokesman that the election should lead to more “predictability and reliability.”

“We want to get this process [the UK leaving the EU by March 2019] done in the prescribed period of time and above all because we don’t need upheaval in this negotiating process – either at the beginning or the end,” he said.

May’s European partners have so far been frustrated by sometimes confusing and contradictory demands, as well as her abrupt shifts in policy, as seen with her sudden embrace of “hard” Brexit in January. There is some hope that an electoral mandate will result in more coherence.

At the same time, European leaders know that a landslide win for May will not mean that the UK is united behind Brexit. It will have much more to do with the disastrous state of the Labor Party. Many anti-Brexit voters were left wondering this week who they should vote for: Labor is split on the Brexit issue, with Corbyn backing the process even though two-thirds of Labor supporters voted against Brexit. The Liberal Democrats are the most pro-European party, campaigning for the UK to remain a member of the EU’s single market, but they face an uphill battle.

With such a broken political spectrum, a landslide win for the Conservatives will not say very much about how the public actually feels about Brexit.

There are other reasons the election boost could help May. As the talks progress she is going to have to make concessions – the kinds of compromises that are often not popular with voters. She knows that if she holds the vote now she will not have to worry about any challenge from the UK Independence Party, which under its new leader Paul Nuttall has collapsed. (Former leader Nigel Farage, who failed seven times to become an MP, said he’d rather keep his seat in the European Parliament than try for the House of Commons for an eighth time.) That may not be true in two years’ time.

With a large majority she can also be more certain of having the loyalty of her own MPs if they must approve a new free trade deal with the EU in two years.

At the same time, in the past some European leaders have learned that holding a vote at home doesn’t always give you a mandate to negotiate in Brussels. Alexis Tsipras also won a mandate from the Greek people in a bailout referendum in 2015, but it got him nothing from his EU partners.

Could It Backfire?

May looks like she has the wind at her back, but some are pointing out that she should be cautious.

A Conservative prime minister before her also decided to call an early election based around a single issue – Edward Heath in 1974. He was hoping to get a mandate to crush the ongoing miner strikes in the UK and assumed he could get one easily because he was well ahead in the polls. But things didn’t go according to plan, and the election ended in a hung parliament in which Labor gained four more seats than the Conservatives.

Could something similar happen to May, though? It would require something to drastically change with the current situation.

The election result depends on whether Labor can come up with a cohesive message on Brexit quickly. May has cast this vote as a sort of second Brexit referendum, because she knows that the current political situation would give a false impression of unity behind Brexit. A vote for the Conservatives is meant to be a vote for Brexit. A vote for the Liberal Democrats or Scottish National Party is meant to be against it. But what does a vote for Labor mean? It is still unclear.

If Corbyn were to come out strongly against the “hard Brexit” that May is planning, it might attract not only those who voted to remain, but also Leave voters who do not like the way the post-referendum developments are going. Corbyn could, for instance, promise to instead negotiate for the UK to leave the EU but reach a Norway-like deal to remain in the single market. This would offer voters a real choice.

All eyes will be on Corbyn in the coming weeks to see if he adopts an abrupt shift of tone on the Brexit question. If not, May could be walking into the start of Brexit talks in June with a strengthened mandate.