Theresa May’s Election Gamble Could Result in a Hard Brexit Landing
by Ronald J. Granieri*
On 8 June, British voters are scheduled to go to the polls to select the next Parliament. These elections will be important not only for the future of the United Kingdom, but for the rest of Europe as well. Coming less than a year after Britain shocked the world by voting to “Brexit” the European Union, this election will either give Theresa May’s government a strong boost as it enters into negotiations about the UK’s future relationship with Europe, or throw those negotiations into disarray. The Brexit referendum was a gamble with the future of a nation and a continent; this election doubles down on that gamble. Right now, the results appear as uncertain as their significance will be historic.
At the end of April, Prime Minister May surprised the British public and most political analysts by announcing her intention to call early parliamentary elections. At the time, it looked like a very smart gambit. May’s government had only recently announced the activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, marking the start of the two-year period of negotiations leading toward formal British departure from the European Union. With Brexit moving from a slogan to a political reality, the Prime Minister saw an opportunity to extend her party’s majority in Parliament, shore up her position as Tory leader, and reinforce her legitimacy as a representative of British interests.
Although she received some criticism for calling elections after initially having promised that she would not, May’s calculations were sensible, even obvious. May entered No. 10 Downing Street in July 2016 as the leader of a Conservative party that enjoyed a solid working majority of twelve seats as a result of the 2015 general election. That majority, however, was not thanks to her, but to her predecessor as Tory Leader, David Cameron. This election gives her the chance to claim a majority of her own.
To understand the decision to call early elections, and the broader implications of these elections for Britain and the world, requires a careful understanding of the circumstances that led to David Cameron’s departure from and Theresa May’s arrival at No. 10. Those circumstances combine personal ambition and the future of a political party with the larger future of the historic project of European integration.
Cameron had brought the Tories back into power after more than a decade in opposition—first in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, and then with a majority of their own in 2015. His success rested in large part on his ability to keep opponents of Britain’s membership in the European Union in the Tory fold. The story of why Britain’s Conservatives, who had been instrumental in Britain’s decision to join the European Union, became so hostile to the EU is a story for another time. It is enough right now to note that the party has been divided into hostile camps on the question of Europe since at least the early 1990s, and that division had contributed to the party’s electoral defeat at the hands of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997. Cameron represented a new generation of Tory leaders who hoped to put aside divisive debates over Europe without alienating either side. Fearful that some voters might abandon the Conservatives in favor of the more resolutely Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron had suggested a referendum on membership in the EU as early as 2007. A coalition with the more pro-Europe Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election had made that promise moot during his first term. In the 2015 campaign, however, Cameron promised that if voters gave the Tories a majority, he would sponsor a national referendum on British EU membership within the next parliamentary term.
Cameron made his promises serenely confident not only in his belief that a referendum would put the European question to rest, but also in his belief that his diplomatic skills at home and abroad would secure favorable terms for Britain to remain in the EU. The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, where Cameron succeeded in leading a campaign to maintain the status quo with the slogan that Britain was “Better Together” no doubt reinforced his belief that he could manage the European challenge as well. It was a seductive vision: holding the referendum would not only solve his party’s problems and resolve his country’s status in Europe, but would secure for himself a place in British political history as one of the most consequential Prime Ministers of the modern era. So sure was he of his brilliance, he did not bother to Plan B in case the referendum turned out contrary to his expectations.
Events proved that Cameron’s confidence was tragically misplaced. Although he led the Tories to a surprisingly decisive victory in 2015, which allowed them to jettison their coalition partner, marginalize UKIP, and govern with their own majority, the 24 June 2016 Brexit referendum produced a shocking defeat. Cameron had believed, and the polls had suggested, that a narrow but measurable majority would vote to remain in the EU. Instead, that narrow but measurable majority (roughly 52-48) voted to leave, and many leading Tories were among the most visible advocates of Brexit. Unprepared for this result, and (despite his promises) unable and unwilling to take an active role in translating the referendum result into government policy, Cameron simply walked away, resigning both his office and his seat in Parliament, leaving the Conservative Party leadership to sort out the next steps.
Cameron’s departure unleashed a furious intra-party scramble for the succession. Home Secretary Theresa May emerged the victor. Even though she had supported Remain, her basic moderation appealed to the broadest segments of the party. May also promised to respect the referendum result, proclaiming on multiple occasions that “Brexit means Brexit,” even if she could be disturbingly vague on the concrete details of her post-EU vision for Britain. In a further effort to maintain party unity, she has included former rivals and more enthusiastic Brexiteers in her government—most significantly, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson.
Upon taking office, May confidently announced that she would manage Brexit negotiations with the existing majority, and allow the public to use the elections scheduled for 2020 to evaluate her performance. After less than nine months, however, criticism within her party and from the broader British public about her management of the first steps toward Brexit convinced her that she would be better off holding early elections, then using an independent mandate to strengthen her negotiating position at home and abroad.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. When May made her announcement in late April, polls gave the Conservatives a commanding lead over the main opposition Labour party. Furthermore, May’s internal critics had not coalesced behind a particular leader, suggesting that an election campaign would be an ideal way to nip any internal party coup in the bud. Early analyses suggested the Conservatives were on a path to a crushing victory. Some predicted a majority of as many as 200 seats, providing a significant boost of confidence for Prime Minister May going into the Brexit negotiations while confounding her internal critics and consigning Labour to a historic loss.
Such a triumph for the Tories would have broader implications for the British political landscape. It would be catastrophic for an already demoralized British Left. Labour has been struggling through an extended intramural conflict between a moderate internationalist wing made up of educated urban professionals and a more radical progressive wing. The latter includes both younger voters and older Labourites who never much liked the centrist New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Jeremy Corbyn represents this progressive wing. Elected by a frustrated party after their defeat in 2015 (thanks to overwhelming votes from newer members unconnected to the traditional leadership), Corbyn has not been in the party mainstream for years, but his older ideas seem fresh and new to a younger generation. His own ambivalence on Europe, reflecting the left-wing Euroskepticism of the 1970s, meant that he offered vague leadership during the referendum campaign. Although Labour officially favored Remain, Corbyn did not campaign actively, and quickly accepted the result of the referendum. With Labour agreeing with the Tories on such a central issue, Labour’s chances of winning back many voters seemed far-fetched.
Other parties of the Center-Left also appeared very weak in late April. The Liberal Democrats, reeling from their 2015 defeat, have tried to portray themselves as the only resolutely pro-EU national party, but it is by no means clear that enough Europhile Tories will cross party lines to make them a factor in this election. Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has tried to combine local nationalism with pro-EU sentiments to hint at a new independence referendum that would allow Scotland to secede from the UK to stay in the EU. Scotland had indeed voted strongly to remain in the EU. More recent polls, however, have suggested uneven enthusiasm for another independence referendum, and some even hinted the Tories might be able to take back a few seats in Scotland, which would undermine the SNP’s dominance. SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has been loath to take decisive steps until after the general election. If the result turns out unfavorable for the SNP, independence may be pushed even further down the agenda.
A Tory landslide had the potential to sweep away challengers on the Right as well. UKIP, which had long threatened to take votes from the Conservatives with its particular combination of populism and Euroscepticism, appeared to be a victim of its own success. With Brexit a reality, UKIP was having a hard time finding a clear identity. Efforts to strike a Trumpian pose as an anti-elitist party collided with the fact that many UKIP voters wanted to support May’s effort to drive a hard bargain with the Europeans on Brexit. If giving May a mandate makes a hard Brexit a reality, that may be enough to drive many UKIP voters back into the arms of the Conservatives.
That’s how things looked for the first weeks after May’s announcement of new elections. Over the course of the last month, however, circumstances have begun to change. May clearly hoped that a truncated election calendar (barely four weeks of official campaigning) would make it hard for her opponents to mobilize, but it has been the Tories who have stumbled badly out of the gate. With contradictory statements on taxes, social policy, and the future of the health care system (most damagingly a confusing policy on whether older Britons may be expected to pay more for their long-term health care, which threatened to alienate voters over 60, one of the Tories’ most reliable voting blocs), May has reinforced some of the earlier criticisms lodged against her—primarily that she is indecisive and uncomfortable in the spotlight. Initially hoping to emphasize her superiority to the other leaders on offer, May declined invitations to participate in televised debates with the leaders of the other major parties, most recently announcing she would send Home Secretary Amber Rudd in her place. What initially appeared presidential now reinforces the charge that May is trying to avoid having to deal with direct criticism. Relying on surrogates has also inspired further whispers that Rudd or some other Tory grandee may be positioned to replace May after the election.
May’s stumbles have opened up unexpected opportunities for her rivals. The Conservative Lead over Labour has shrunk rapidly—from more than 20 points in most national polls to as few as six points. Even though Conservative speakers attack him for his left-wing positions on international relations, dredging up his statements in support of the regime in Venezuela and for the terrorists of the Irish Republican Army, Jeremy Corbyn has been able to rally Labour voters with his calls to strengthen the National Health Service and to fight income inequality. Even UKIP has been trying to regain some of its élan by reasserting its role as the opponent of unrestricted immigration, claiming that May has offered little more than rhetorical support for Brexit, and encouraging voters to stick with UKIP to make sure that Brexit really means Brexit.
Adding to the electoral uncertainty is the tragic attack in Manchester, which has unsettled British society and led to a pause in electioneering. It remains to be seen how the parties will incorporate messages about security into the campaign as it restarts, and how resurgent fears about minority communities and international terrorism might drive voter decisions.
The possibly domestic political consequences of this election are obvious; the election’s impact on geopolitics is harder to predict. When the Prime Minister called this election, the only question appeared to be how much the Conservative majority would grow. With polls tightening, it is possible that it will not grow much at all. The peculiarities of the British system of single member districts and first-past-the-post winners means that national percentages may not tell us much about the actual makeup of the next parliament. It is still unlikely that the Conservatives could lose their majority altogether, but it is not completely beyond the realm of possibility. Some combination of Tory losses in marginal districts and UKIP successes that split the Center-Right vote, resulting in an outright loss of the majority, would be a disaster for the party. Even a tepid showing would weaken of Theresa May’s position within her party, and could also undermine her negotiating positon in Europe.
That said, there is very little chance of the result of this election reversing the Brexit decision. Labour has announced that it is as committed to making Brexit a reality as the Tories. The only chance for change on that score would be if the Liberal Democrats were to win back the seats they lost in 2015 and again be the crucial partner in a coalition government. Their leader, Tim Farron, has declared that in such a case they would insist on reconsideration of Brexit. That, however, is quite the long shot. Also possible is a three-way coalition of Labour, Liberal democrats, and SNP, but that would require the partners to put aside bitter differences on a variety of issues, and would probably also require the departure of Jeremy Corbyn.
The most likely outcome is still a Tory majority, but if it is not notably larger than it is now, it’s hard to see how this election helps Prime Minister May, or anyone at all for that matter. She will go weakened into the Brexit talks with the other 27 EU members, unable to accomplish her main goals and vulnerable to attacks from reinvigorated Eurosceptic element at home. The result could then be a hard Brexit, and a hard landing for everyone.
When David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership, he thought it was a clever chess move to undermine critics on his right and guarantee both his party’s dominance and his personal historical reputation. Events made that move appear much less clever. The EU, the UK, the Conservative Party, and David Cameron’s historical reputation are still reeling from the Brexit vote. Theresa May also looked very clever when she called this snap election. Unless she is able to turn the current unfavorable trends around, however, the chance for a smooth transition to a post-Brexit era may be lost, and the Prime Minister may just end up joining her predecessor in the history books for all the wrong reasons.
*Ronald J. Granieri is Executive Director of FPRI’s Center for the Study of America and the West, editor of FPRI’s The American Review of Books, Blogs, and Bull, and host of Geopolitics with Granieri, a monthly discussion program at FPRI.