Will Theresa May’s snap-poll gamble pay off as she stakes political future on Brexit?
Andrew Hammond says the shock announcement underlines how Brexit is reframing UK politics, and the opposition and remain camp could gain if they present an attractive wider vision against the prime minister’s hard Brexit
British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a snap general election on June 8, with Brexit the primary motivation. The announcement signals the third UK-wide vote in two years, and has taken the country by surprise, after repeated denials of any national ballot before the scheduled one in May 2020.
The chief reason for her U-turn, May asserted, was that opposition parties were, by and large, at odds with her Brexit plan. She is not prepared to allow political opponents to jeopardise the forthcoming exit negotiations with the EU. The “country is coming together, but Westminster is not,” she said, adding that the country needs “certainty, stability and strong leadership”.
The specific context for the unexpected election is the important debate across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about the implications of last June’s referendum. May, a reluctant “remainer” turned staunch “Brexiteer”, has made clear her view that immigration and sovereignty were the primary drivers behind the “Leave” victory.
Watch: Theresa May calls for early election
It follows that controlling migration flows from the European Union and ending the jurisdiction in the United Kingdom of the European Court of Justice should become the key UK objectives for Brexit negotiations. EU commitment to the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital has pushed May towards a hard negotiating stance which opposition parties have expressed grave concerns about.
This hard Brexit will see the UK, in May’s words, discard all “bits of the EU”. This includes membership of the European single market, and common commercial policy and customs tariff. However, there were diverse views expressed by those voting to exit the EU. Some “Leave” voters focused on the perceived costs and constraints of EU membership rather than immigration and sovereignty, including British financial contributions to the EU budget. Many were encouraged by the claim made in the referendum that leaving the EU would mean a £350 million (HK$3.5 billion) a week financial bonanza that could be ploughed back into the National Health Service. This misleading pledge has since been dropped.
Others voted to leave on the vision of a global UK that could, post Brexit, allow the nation to secure new ties with non-EU countries. A significant number voted “Leave” as a protest against non-EU issues, such as austerity measures implemented by UK governments since the 2008-09 international financial crisis.
Contrary to what many Brexiteers now insist, the “Leave” vote therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, an overwhelming consensus behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly.
These are the key questions that May wants to now try to see resolved in the election – seeking her first mandate from the country as Conservative Party leader. She will assume, should she win a vastly bigger majority in the House of Commons, that she has the backing of the country behind her hard Brexit stance.
Conservatives lead strongly in polls, and May’s gamble will be based on the premise that she can now win a huge, historic victory and call the bluff of opposition parties. This is by no means certain.
Since the referendum, it has become clearer that Brexit is driving new positioning by some of the main political parties in the UK. The Conservatives are unifying around the government’s hard Brexit stance. Like the prime minister herself, this includes many former remainers who have now switched sides to back her vision.
Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to make political capital through full-out, steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against many of the main British parties, and led it in December to a by-election victory in southwest London’s Richmond Park against the Conservatives when Brexit was the defining issue.
Taken overall, May’s announcement underlines how Brexit is reframing national politics in the UK.
She has taken a calculated gamble on winning a huge, historic victory on June 8, yet the Conservatives’ sizeable poll lead could soften during the campaign if opposition parties present an attractive “Brexit and beyond” vision for the UK that mobilises voters.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics