May’s poll bombshell a shrewd move

Out of the blue: Prime Minister Theresa May refuses to allow her political foes to imperil Britain’s exit from the European Union, and has called an early election as a result. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

Out of the blue: Prime Minister Theresa May refuses to allow her political foes to imperil Britain’s exit from the European Union, and has called an early election as a result. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

NEWS ANALYSIS

British Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Tuesday that she is engineering a snap general election for June 8, with Brexit being the primary motivation. The unexpected announcement, which signals the third United Kingdom-wide vote in two years, has taken the country by surprise following repeated denials from Downing Street that May would call an early national ballot before the next scheduled election in 2020.

The chief reason the prime minister asserted for her spectacular U-turn is that opposition parties are, by and large, at odds with her Brexit plan.

She told the country that she is not prepared to allow her political opponents to jeopardise the forthcoming exit negotiations with the European Union. In her own words, the “country is coming together, but Westminster is not” and what the country needs is “certainty, stability and strong leadership”.

The announcement underlines the fact that May’s government will be defined by last year’s Brexit decision, which is already having profound implications for the nation.

The specific context for the unexpected general election is the important debate across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about what the meaning and implications are of last June’s EU referendum. The prime minister — a reluctant Remainer who has turned into a staunch Brexiteer — has made clear her strong view that immigration and sovereignty were the primary drivers behind the Leave campaign’s victory last year.

From this perspective, it follows that controlling migration flows from the EU and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK should therefore become the key UK objectives for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

Given the EU’s commitment to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, this has pushed May towards a hard Brexit negotiating stance, which opposition parties have expressed grave concerns about.

This “hard Brexit” will see the UK, in May’s words, discarding all “bits of the EU”. This includes membership of the 500‑million-strong consumer European Single Market and of the EU Customs Union, leaving the common commercial policy and no longer being tied to the common commercial tariff.

But May’s narrative about Brexit is far from the entire picture and there were, in fact, diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people who voted to exit the EU last year.

Some Leave voters, for instance, including isolationalists, focused on the perceived costs and constraints of EU membership other than immigration and sovereignty, including the issue of UK financial contributions to the supranational organisation’s budget.

Many voters were encouraged by the claim made in the referendum that leaving the EU would mean a mammoth £350‑million-a-week financial bonanza that could be ploughed back into the National Health Service. This misleading pledge has since been dropped by Brexiteers.

Others voted Leave for a vision of a buccaneering global UK that could, post-Brexit, allow the nation to secure new ties with non-EU countries, including in the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and the Americas.

Meanwhile, a significant slice of the electorate voted Leave as a protest against non-EU issues such as the domestic austerity measures implemented by UK governments since the 2008-2009 international financial crisis.

Contrary to what many Brexiteers now insist, the Leave vote therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments. There was (and still is) not an overwhelming consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly.

The continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues are still underlined in polls that tend to show the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market or being able to limit migration should be the key objective in negotiations.

These are the key questions that May now wants to see resolved in the election in which she is seeking her first mandate from the country as Conservative Party leader. She will assume — should she win a larger majority in the House of Commons — that she has the backing of the country behind her hard Brexit stance.

May’s Conservatives lead strongly in polls and her 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 in what will be a potentially remarkable election.

Since last year’s referendum, one factor that has become clearer is how Brexit is driving new positioning, and potentially even new pro- and anti-EU electoral cleavages, by some of the UK’s main political parties with representation in England, Scotland and Wales.

On one pole, 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 for a hard Brexit.

The other major party with a pro-Brexit message is the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Yet its vote could now be squeezed by the significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives toward a hard EU exit.

Conversely, the Liberal Democrats seek to make political capital with full-out, steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against many of the main UK parties, and led it in December to win a by-election victory in Richmond Park in London against the Conservatives when Brexit was the defining issue.

Taken overall, May’s announcement underlines how Brexit is re-framing the nation’s politics.

The prime minister has taken a calculated gamble on her expectation that she will win on June 8, yet the Conservatives’ sizeable polling lead could soften during the campaign if opposition parties turn in a strong performance and present an attractive “Brexit and beyond” vision for the UK that mobilises voters.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics

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