What’s behind Theresa May’s election gamble in the UK?

With a general election called for June 8, is May a shoo-in? Jeremy Kinsman, former Canadian high commissioner to the UK, on why now and what could throw the narrative. 

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April 19, 2017
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to speak to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Will the division in Britain over Brexit now be settled forever if, as is widely expected, Theresa May wins a large majority in the snap election she called this week for June 8? Is that large electoral majority in the bag? And having sworn earlier that she would not be calling an election before 2020 — when the next election was expected and when the terms of British exit from the European Union would have been known — why did she reverse her position?

Those are the main questions hanging over the announcement this week, though it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. I always believed May would call an election around now. The British, as in Canada, elect a parliament, not a leader. If a prime minister resigns in the middle of a parliamentary term, the successor chosen by the governing party acquires legitimacy from parliament’s support. But without having won a personal electoral mandate from the people, there is an air of expediency to the newcomer’s “moral” authority. This is especially true if the government is on the brink of a huge policy shift. 

The reasoning

The Brexit decision is an existential shift. May has maintained that the referendum mandate confers all the legitimacy that is needed for Brexit to proceed. But with an electoral victory by a larger majority, she will have a double mandate when negotiations begin in a month or two with the 27 members of the EU. It would strengthen her negotiating position and also shore up her authority, if not popularity, in secession-leaning Scotland. A larger working majority would also make her less reliant on hard-line factions in her own Conservative party and better enable compromises with the EU on new arrangements.

Politically, her position today — a 20-point lead in the polls — is as strong as it could be. Since nothing has actually happened yet on the exit front, there has been little evidence of hard economic costs. But if it becomes clearer that a “hard Brexit” is all that is obtainable from the EU on Britain’s terms of national prerogatives on borders, labour and regulatory sovereignty, the costs will become real and worrisome to the public. That would make winning an election much harder.

Right now, May faces the weakest imaginable leader of the opposition in the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, whose other-worldly and doctrinaire hostility to Britain’s economic system has a following among leftists but not enough appeal for the country at large. Bernie Sanders in the United States and the surging leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France have ridden their personal charisma and energy into popularity, but Corbyn lacks both. If May had waited a couple of years, Labour might well have replaced Corbyn with someone who has greater public appeal.

May goes into this election with the Brexit momentum on her side, in that the threat to the Conservatives from the hard-liners of the rightist UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been trumped. (Getting behind the Brexit decision has essentially nullified UKIP's appeal.) Further, UKIP may poll 10 percent of the public but they have no seats. 

As to the sizeable part of the divided UK population that remains unconvinced of Brexit, somewhere around 40-45 percent, they are over-represented in London and the larger cities and therefore do not represent a significant threat, yet, overall. 

The risks

So, is there no risk at all in calling a snap election? There has been an abundance of recent evidence of national campaigns everyone expected to win but which had the wheels come off, most recently with Hillary Clinton’s failure to overcome her image as an over-entitled insider, and failure to connect with a positive rationale for her election. Similarly, Brexit may have won the referendum because of former Prime Minister David Cameron’s equally terrible campaign to project a rationale for the UK remaining in the EU. It was a binary choice over an emotional identity issue.

"If there is a wild card, it is in the potential of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats to rally the defiant 'remain' vote."

For May, an even greater task is on the table, despite how it looks at the moment, for a general election covers a government’s whole program and political personality and governments running campaigns in defence of the status quo have been battered everywhere.

How does the Conservative status quo look to the public? May was once the party’s chairman, and warned then that the Tories risked being seen as “the nasty party.” She is herself reasonably progressive on some social issues. If she can project a more socially sensitive face in the campaign, she’ll have a better chance of meeting her objective of increasing the Conservative majority from the risky margin of 17 seats today.

But the Conservatives have something of the problem of the U.S. Republican Party: an obdurate right-wing base that is hard to control. May’s key Brexit ministers, moreover, including Boris Johnson, have a record of freelancing in public commentary. There is a potential for embarrassment there. May is a control freak but her own judgment can seem awry, such as on the unseemly rush to Washington to pay fealty to President Donald Trump.

If there is a wild card, it is in the potential of the centrist and pro-EU Liberal Democrats to rally the defiant “remain” vote from among moderates in both Labour and the Conservatives. The Lib Dems faded recently to 12 percent in the polls because their five-year power-sharing coalition agreement with Cameron undermined their identity. But they could revive. In the 2010 campaign, then-leader of the Lib Dems Nick Clegg surged because the public wanted an alternative to the usual two contending parties for power. His successor as leader, Tim Farron, is an attractive unknown quantity who might connect to the public in a major way. The party has been picking up seats in UK council elections and membership has been swelling, principally in London and the South. It’s not unthinkable they could exploit the volatile atmosphere and achieve another break-through that would deny May her increased majority, and alter the calculus. 

Should Marine Le Pen win the French election May 7, Britain will see the EU as a definitely failing project. But if pro-EU and outsider centrist Emmanuel Macron wins, as is still likely if turn-out is high in the second round of balloting, the UK outcome will not be a given. It will depend on the campaign. The stakes couldn’t be higher for Britain.