Make No Mistake: Britain is Getting Another Vote on Brexit

Unlike her predecessors, when Theresa May stood on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, she was unable to call a general election. The queen had been informed by telephone of her decision the night before, but all the prime minister could do was to call for a general election by announcing her intention to put a motion before the House of Commons under the Fixed-term Parliament Act.

However, it did not take long for before all the major parties had confirmed that they would walk through the government lobby.

With a commanding majority in favour, there will be a general election on Thursday 8th June.

In many ways this announcement is far from surprising. Since she took over from David Cameron in July, May has led in the polls. She has faced a Labour party that is divided but has also weak leadership. The opportunity to secure a large parliamentary majority and a personal mandate would tempt any politician. May, for all the protests, is no different from any other politician. She can resist anything except temptation.

The EU referendum gave a compelling rationale for an early election: for all the bravura of Brexiters, the vote was not in favour of any particular form of Brexit. It was a vote to leave, not a vote on how to leave. It presented a conflict for MPs who had overwhelmingly opted to campaign and vote for Remain. The vote over Article 50 showed the constitutional conundrum this placed members of parliament in as many felt pressured into voting against their consciences.

it will be like no other election we have known in our lives

For all that, there is no specific reason why May has to call an election now. She secured the passage of her Article 50 bill and was able to give notice to the European Union of Britain’s intention to leave. Although she faces opposition, her slim parliamentary majority is bolstered by Labour Leavers and Ulster’s unionists.  On Brexit, her position is much stronger than paper shows.

Yet for all her command of the political scene May has been, like Conservative leaders before her, a prisoner to the hard, Europhobic right of her party. Her majority - smaller than that won by John Major in 1992 - has meant that she has had to play to the gallery. Much of her rhetoric has been designed to placate that section of the party, at the expense of her pre-referendum convictions.

By calling an election she may hope to free herself from this captivity but she has already dragged the debate to the right. A convincing victory on June 8th may mean that she is able to temper her negotiating position, even discard notions that no deal is better than a bad deal, but she has already allowed the centre of the debate to shift towards hard Brexit.

The only way any Brexit May negotiates could be considered a soft Brexit is by comparing it to what the extremes in her party want, and ignoring the more sensible compromises of Remain Tories and reasonable Labour parliamentarians. The softer Brexit of a re-elected Theresa May does not mean soft Brexit. It means leaving the single market and customs unions. It is hard Brexit without the swivel-eyes.  

Make no mistake, this will be an election about Brexit. Parties will produce manifestos and other policies will be aired. However, they will take second place to parties’ views on European Union membership. As such it will be like no other election we have known in our lives.

there are risks for May in calling a snap election

The expectation is that May will win handsomely but there will be unexpected, and unpredictable, swings across the country as Brexit strains Britain’s creaking two-party system. Partisan tribal identity may come a second place to European, and notions of British, identity. Bill Clinton’s 1992 dictum does not apply.

And so there are risks for May in calling a snap election. Voters are weary of politics, having endured a large-scale plebiscite every year since 2014. One of the reasons for her undoubted popularity has been her seeming willingness to get on with the job of government, not politics. Her new opportunism may be frowned upon.

The Copeland by-election showed that May’s political reach goes beyond that of her predecessor and the Conservative party will be hoping to break through in areas of the north that have for decades voted Labour. Yet her party is not impregnable. London voted heavily Remain and will not reward Theresa May’s party; other parts of the prosperous commuter belt, so long traditionally Tory, may vote not at the ballot box but by staying at home.

Conversely, the other risk - shown in council by-elections - is that Remain voters are more likely to turn up. Brexit was won by many who did not usually vote at general elections. If they revert to their norm, May might struggle for that three figure majority she craves.

As such, she has to find a balance of keeping traditional voters on board while attracting new voters, unaccustomed to voting Conservative. It will be a tricky act.

It is perfectly possible for someone to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Whatever her motives, there has been an overwhelming case for an election since June. At last, she has responded to that case.

This is a Brexit election. Voters must treat it as one.

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