Opinion | Theresa May Rolls the Electoral Dice

An unelected Prime Minister seeks a public mandate for leadership and her Brexit strategy.

A big election year for Europe just got bigger. With France’s upcoming presidential election becoming a nail-biter and Germans preparing to vote in September, British Prime Minister Theresa May has now called a snap election for June 8. The outcome will have far-reaching implications not only for the United Kingdom’s impending negotiations on withdrawal from the European Union, but also for the survival of the U.K. itself.

Notwithstanding the unpredictability of British politics nowadays, May’s Conservative Party is expected to win the election handily. A recent YouGov/Times poll predicted that the Conservatives would receive 44% of the vote, compared to 23% for the Labour Party, 12% for the Liberal Democrats and 10% for the U.K. Independence Party. Under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservatives would likely have a hefty majority of more than 100 seats in the House of Commons – up from 14 now.

Promises, promises

May owes her position as prime minister to the parliamentary majority that David Cameron won in 2015, before he resigned in the wake of last June’s Brexit referendum. But if the election result vindicates the pollsters, she will have a significantly stronger popular mandate than Cameron did.

To be sure, the Conservatives are unlikely to win more than 50% of the vote. But May could still claim that a big parliamentary majority amounts to an endorsement of her pursuit of a “hard Brexit.” That entails leaving the EU single market and customs union, so that the U.K. can impose immigration controls on EU citizens, free itself from the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction, and pursue its own trade deals. At the same time, a large parliamentary majority might give May more leeway to make compromises during the Brexit negotiations, because she will be less vulnerable to pressure from hardline Brexiteers.

The timing of a Conservative victory would prove highly opportune for May. She could claim her mandate to implement a hard Brexit before the consequences hit home, while the economy is still riding high on debt-fueled consumption. And she would not have to face voters again until 2022, giving her more flexibility in implementing Brexit.

If Britain leaves the EU as planned in 2019, there could be a further two- or three-year transition period before the 2022 election, during which the U.K. might remain in the single market and customs union – and maintain free movement – while it negotiates a future trade deal. Most of the trade, investment and migration losses that Brexit is likely to cause might thus be delayed.

But there are risks to May’s strategy. For starters, she is reversing a position she has maintained since announcing her candidacy to succeed Cameron as Tory leader (and thus as prime minister). “There won’t be an early election,” she vowed a week after the Brexit vote. “There should be no general election until 2020.” She has issued similar, seemingly ironclad assurances ever since.

May’s justification for calling an early election – that the current parliamentary opposition could block Brexit – is nonsense. Parliament unconditionally allowed May to initiate the EU exit process last month. If it tried to reject an exit deal, Britain would simply leave the EU without one. Similarly, a big parliamentary majority would not strengthen May’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the EU. If anything, the knowledge that she had scope to compromise would weaken it.

By cynically breaking her promises, May could badly erode the public’s trust in her. She obviously thinks she can get away with it: Even if swing voters have doubts about her, they are not about to bolt to the deeply unpopular hard-left Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have an opportunity to siphon support from both the Conservatives and Labour, by campaigning against May’s vision for a hard Brexit. Granted, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, does not look particularly prime ministerial. But he did oppose his party’s decision to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015, which could make him more palatable to voters fleeing from Labour.

In addition, the Liberal Democrats could appeal to more moderate Tory voters, because they remain committed to EU single-market membership. And, lastly, one cannot discount the possibility that a new centrist party will emerge before June.

If May fails to win a big majority, her authority within the Conservative Party will be weakened. But even if she fails to win a majority, Brexit would not be stopped, unless every anti-Brexit Member of Parliament were to back a temporary government and vote to hold a second national referendum. With this outcome being extremely unlikely, the most one can hope for is that the election will soften the blow from Brexit.

May is also taking a much bigger gamble with the survival of the U.K. She recently rejected the Scottish government’s request for another independence referendum – the second since 2014 – on the grounds that it would be wrong for Scots to vote before knowing the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. But she is now asking Britons to do precisely that.

May’s position on Scotland is scarcely tenable. Assuming that the pro-independence Scottish National Party’s support holds up in the general election, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon will be in a much stronger position to renew her demand for an independence referendum – perhaps as early as next year.

With many Scots – 62% of whom voted to remain in the EU – leery of being dragged into a hard Brexit by a Conservative U.K. government in thrall to English nationalism, the case for Scottish independence could be compelling. The future of Northern Ireland remains in question as well. Little England, a state of mind, could become the real thing.

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