It may have been long overdue (like the pun there?), but the UK Prime Minister’s decision to call a general election this morning was a piece of political masterclass and a bold, calculated gamble.
By calling a general election Theresa May is attempting to resolve several major headaches at once, assuming that she is successful: Firstly, the move creates political certainty in the UK at a time where it is sorely needed. Secondly, the move will end questions around the Theresa May’s political support within the party itself and lastly it will strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand with the EU.
If the Conservatives win (especially by an increased margin), then Theresa May will have a clear mandate for her Brexit negotiation strategy. This will give investors, businesses and political leaders a greater sense of what the UK will choose to prioritise and a clearer idea of which figures will manage the UK’s transition from a full EU member state to an independent nation. Assuming that the PM will stay for a full five-year term, the Conservatives would govern until 2022, giving them the ability to handle the transition after Brexit as well and a chance to resolve any outstanding issues with EU members, the WTO and Scotland.
The surprise election is also likely to be popular with the Conservative political base, partly because the opposition are so weak. Labour remains extremely divided between its core factions, while the Lib Dems will have a mountain to climb to recover even the 40 seats it previously held before 2015. The SNP can only lose from their current position and Northern Ireland has been in deadlock since the last regional government collapsed. In 2015 UKIP won 3.9 million votes, today the country has voted to leave and they have no credible or popular leader. All of this explains why the polls suggest a clear Conservative lead, and even though polls have been consistently unreliable in the last 18 months, few polls have predicted a winning margin of this magnitude that has been overturned in such a short time period.
The reason why winning an election is important however is that it is the key to ensuring party unity. The Conservative party is famous for its political backstabbing and without an election win under her belt, the PM would have been vulnerable to challengers if the EU negotiations turn ugly. Incidentally there are even rumours that the election will help to neutralise the Conservative political right, by forcing the PM to adopt a less aggressive position to win the election. If the Conservatives wish to keep seats in London and the South West, they will need to win over unhappy remain voters and soft Brexit voters. With a mandate to govern secured on a hard Brexit, with very flexible immigration and extremely close ties to the EU, the PM will neutralise the Tory right and move the negotiations towards a less confrontational position.
The UK has had a number of challenges in getting the EU to agree on even basic terms for Brexit. The UK gave notice that they would invoke Article 50 at the end of March, but the EU has focused on the “negotiating framework” for the Brexit discussions. This focus has been both strategically and tactically driven. Strategically, by agreeing the framework for talks in advance the EU can already try and dictate the terms of the UK’s exit. Tactically, the major EU decision making member states either have elections, just had elections or have elections due in the next five months (The Netherlands, France and Germany), so delaying the main issues until after September avoids discussing the issues during elections.
The EU commission had assumed that after the EU’s major elections, its leaders would have fresh electoral mandates and solidarity across the block. This would have put the PM at a considerable disadvantage, as the EU could have decided to target politically sensitive areas like agricultural tariffs or financial service access to secure concessions. This threat has now been taken off the table. Even if the EU makes threats against these sectors, it will take years for the full effects to come through and politically speaking, the EU has lost its ability to alter who it will be negotiating with on the UK side of the table.
This is a move that carries risks though. Firstly, Labour may be more resilient than expected and the Lib Dems may well recover the 40 seats that they lost. If such an outcome occurs, the UK would have a hung parliament and the UK would enter a constitutional crisis. It is unlikely that the Conservatives could form a viable coalition at this time, but it is also unclear whether an SNP/Labour/Lib Dem coalition would be any better. This being the case, there is a chance that the UK might have a second election within a few months of the new one in June. Needless to say, Theresa May would be extremely damaged as a leader if the Conservative party did not retain an overall majority, while any further Labour party losses would trigger another bout of in-fighting over the need for new leader to replace Corbyn.
The last piece of this story is that an election on which party will govern during and after Brexit, is also a tacit election on the Brexit process itself. If the Lib Dems did the unthinkable and gained north of 60 seats, with minimal Labour losses, the UK could very well have a crisis about the declaration of article 50 itself. More realistically however, the end of a conservative majority would likely lead to the UK seeking to remain as a member of the Single Market. Such a move would send political shockwaves through the UK and EU political system (assuming the EU even allowed it) and would leave the UK bitterly divided, in a far more dramatic way than it has been since the vote itself. Still, the election is the last chance that the British public will have to go out and vote on what relationship the UK will have with the EU.
If you haven’t registered to vote, then go out and do so. This may be one of the defining moments of British politics in the 21st century.