What You Need to Know About the Unexpected UK Election by Stephen Barber
Britain is having a surprise general election just two years after the last one and a year since the momentous EU referendum. This snap election is historically unusual since Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is maintained by a small but stable majority in the House of Commons and the Parliament was expected to run through to 2020. But these are not usual times.
Brexit has delivered a shock to the political system of seismic proportions. Meanwhile, the main opposition Labour party is suffering from near terminal dysfunctionality. Bill Clinton is reported to have described the “new” Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn as “the maddest person in the room” and is a figure who can command the support of only a minority of his parliamentary party.
General elections are never about a single issue, however much politicians might want them to be, but 2017 will surely be characterized as the “Brexit election.” Not a re-run of the referendum - there is little likelihood that this vote will or could reverse the result -but rather one which potentially gives the Prime Minister greater freedom to maneuver and which solidifies parliamentary opposition.
In terms of the latter, the opportunity is more likely to be grasped by the Liberal Democrats – a party in coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives after 2010 but crushed at the polls in 2015. The Lib Dems have positioned themselves as the most pro-EU voice in British politics and if they manage to convert a decent proportion of the 48 percent Remain supporters into votes on June 8, could take several seats (back) from the Conservatives and present themselves as an opposition force with a mandate in the new Parliament.
But it is May herself who will be seeking the biggest mandate. Having assumed the premiership without any election at all in the wake of the referendum result and only 14 months after David Cameron won in 2015, the PM wants to free herself from the already dated manifesto and perhaps too from potential captivity by her own right wing who want the hardest of Brexits. She has long stated that she would not call an early election so this is a sharp turnaround which has led to accusations of dishonesty.
And no one is really buying her claim that she needed an election to head off parliamentary opposition to her EU strategy. After all, May has managed to win every vote in the Commons and even passed the Lords without any serious setback to her timetable. No one is really buying her claim that an election is needed for stability either, since she commands the confidence of Parliament, most of the press and faces a weak opposition.
There are some real attractions in terms of the government’s Brexit strategy to come from an election win now. For a start it eases the pressures built into the timetable: at the end of the two year negotiation period, there would not be a near immediate election to follow.
Secondly by putting the government’s strategy in the party manifesto, the (more pro-EU) House of Lords will not stand in the way of legislation. Then there is the state of the economy which is surely on the brink of being squeezed as the consequence of Brexit itself but in the spring of 2017 feels pretty good to the electorate; particularly those who voted Leave. An election gives May her own mandate, able to face off dissidents in her own party, in others and carry increased confidence on in Brussels.
But let’s not kid ourselves that these high minded considerations have triggered the election alone. There is a much more basic motivation and that is the polls. Theresa May’s Conservatives command as much as a 20 point lead in some opinion polls and Jeremy Corbyn does not represent a credible alternative prime minister in the eyes of most voters. In these uncertain times, it is true that Theresa May might not be able to convert that support into votes and therefore seats where it matters. The election could be hijacked by issues other than stability and leadership.
There is a risk in calling an election so soon after taking office. But the prospect of a landslide victory not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher has surely proved too tempting to resist.
Stephen Barber (@StephenBarberUK) is Associate Professor of Public Policy at London South Bank University and a Senior Fellow of the Global Policy Institute.