When Theresa May called a snap general election in April, she took Britain by surprise. It shouldn’t have. Riding high in the polls and with her opponents in trouble, Theresa May wants a mandate for a tough Brexit negotiating position, and a majority in Parliament for her own domestic agenda.
When UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced on 18th April that she was calling a snap general election for 9th June, it managed to be both a surprise and entirely predictable. It was surprising for many reasons. For months, Mrs May and her team had strenuously denied that an early election was going to happen. By March, legal and political obstacles to starting the 2-year process of Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU-27 had been overcome, and overcome convincingly: the House of Commons voted by 498 votes to 114 to trigger Article 50. With the Brexit process underway, opposition overcome, and an electorate wary of a fourth major election or referendum in four years, why would Mrs May want or need an early election?
The answer is that, in the end, the temptations were too strong to resist. First, when Theresa May became Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation, she inherited a political situation that gave her little room for manoeuvre. Her Conservative Party’s majority in the Commons was 12, and in her 7 months as PM she had been forced to withdraw or revise almost every major domestic policy proposal. Meanwhile she had no majority in the House of Lords, whose members were overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit, and intent on providing challenge and scrutiny that many in her team found at best unwelcome and at worst threatening to the Brexit project.
Second, Mrs May’s political opponents are in a historically weak position. Labour has become divided internally along multiple lines – pro-Corbyn vs anti-Corbyn, metropolitan vs town, accepting Brexit vs resisting Brexit – and is languishing at unprecedentedly low levels in opinion polls. The Liberal Democrats were reduced to 9 seats (out of 650) in 2015, and are still in recovery mode. UKIP, the far-right populist party that, despite having no remaining MPs, has driven so much of the agenda on Brexit and immigration over the past 5 years, has lost its distinctiveness and reason to exist now that the Brexit vote has been won. It is imploding in national opinion polls as its supporters migrate to a Conservative Party whose mission is making a success of Brexit. Add this to Theresa May’s personal popularity across the UK and it is difficult to imagine a more favourable set of conditions for an early election.
And then there is the Brexit factor. It is true that Article 50 has already been triggered. But what kind of Brexit Britain negotiates is still a matter of huge debate. Theresa May has been clear what she wants: a “Hard Brexit” – completed in 2 years, negotiated alongside a new EU-UK trade deal, with control of UK borders fully restored, and the end of ECJ jurisdiction. These are ambitious goals, and have been treated with widespread scepticism (both inside Britain and in the wider EU). But Theresa May wants the election to be about one issue: who should be the British leader to negotiate the best Brexit deal for Britain. The more European leaders tell Britain that Hard Brexit is impossible or self-harming, the more Theresa May’s toughness as the leader needed for fraught negotiations is strengthened.
The consequences of this election for Britain and for Brexit will be significant. As they will be for the Labour Party. It is a party in crisis. It is badly divided, and the public has little sense of its position on Brexit, the dominant issue of our time. In the wake of the election, Labour has to start asking what philosophical and organisational changes are needed to adapt the party to a politics which is no longer simply based on the left-right cleavages of the post-1945 world.
As for Brexit, opinion polls suggest Mrs May will emerge with a larger majority. Some hope that she will use this strategic wriggle-room to face down the Hard Brexit Eurosceptics in her party, and adopt a more pragmatic tone in Brexit negotiations – allowing more flexibility on free movement in return for continued access to the EU single market, considering a longer transition period, and accepting the need for swift reassurance that EU citizens living in the UK can remain as residents. More likely, however, is that Mrs May will see a bigger majority as an endorsement of her tough approach to the negotiations. She says repeatedly that she wants a ‘deep and special partnership’ with Europe post-Brexit. We should all hope that is true. But significant clashes on the size of Britain’s ‘Brexit payment’, and on Britain’s demand for trade without us accepting the principle of free movement, almost certainly lie in wait as Brexit negotiations begin in the second half of 2018.