After repeatedly ruling out a snap election, this morning British Prime Minister Theresa May announced she will ask Parliament to trigger an election, to be held on June 8. (Under the Fixed Term Elections Act, the House of Commons now holds the prerogative to call elections, requiring a two-thirds majority of MPs to dissolve the House).
This is a remarkable and bold move on May’s part, and also a politically astute one. And it is a decision, like so many affecting the UK political landscape recently, driven largely by internal Conservative party divisions.
UK political history
Let’s back up, because there are two historical examples that underlie May’s decision. The first is the 1974 “Who Governs” election. Short story is, against a backdrop of union militancy, Conservative prime minister Ted Heath called a snap election, framing it as a battle between unions and government. That bold move not only backfired for Heath (the election produced the first hung Parliament since 1929 and Heath was unable to form a coalition government, leaving Labour leader Harold Wilson to form a minority government), but the election also set in motion the destruction of the two-party postwar consensus.
The second example is in the more recent past, with PM Gordon Brown’s failure to call a snap election after taking over from Tony Blair. Like May, Brown had not fought a general election as the head of his party, but had succeeded a sitting PM. While perfectly legitimate in parliamentary systems (we elect MPs, not PMs), there is always a pressure to face the voters as leader and secure a personal mandate. Brown had a very strong chance to do this in autumn 2007, months after succeeding Blair as leader of the Labour Party and prime minister. The polls were good, and although Brown was unknown as PM, he had a strong record as chancellor. But, in popular parlance, Brown bottled it with his failure to call a snap election. The 2008 recession hit hard, and the opposition framed the narrative around him before he was able to do it himself. The rest is history.
Theresa May is a canny, shrewd politician. She will take serious lessons from these cases. Indeed, in asking Parliament for an election, she’s already heeded the Brown example.
The Tories and Europe
Now, let’s do a quick history class on the Conservatives and Europe. Membership in some version of a European union has been the single most divisive issue in postwar history of the Conservative Party. It has, to varying degrees, plagued every single leader. It was a Conservative PM, Harold MacMillan, who first applied for European membership in 1961, and his party was fairly pro-European through the 1960s and 1970s. Thatcher originally supported the European project, but it came to haunt her. She referred to European-supporting moderates in her own cabinet as “the wets,” and this group of MPs brought about her downfall. Conservative PM John Major branded Eurosceptic MPs in his own party “the bastards.”
It was primarily the threat from the anti-EU flank of his own party that led David Cameron to promise a Brexit referendum. All the subsequent positioning — with Boris Johnson campaigning for Leave, despite likely being in the Remain camp; Cameron campaigning for Remain, while probably personally being a Leave supporter; and Theresa May, although decidedly absent and notionally Remain, personally being a strong Leave supporter — was driven by internal party conflicts and leadership ambitions.
This proud history continues today.
May’s statement outside Number 10 on Tuesday focused on the need for stable leadership, as Britain plots a Brexit course. This will be her “who governs” election. It is nice messaging, but its a red herring. The main reasons for this election were unsaid. So, let’s say them here.
- The polls: May studiously failed to mention her party’s 22-point lead over the Labour Party in the polls, its significant financial advantage, and Labour infighting over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It’s likely May could not have picked a better time to demand a snap election.
- Tory caucus: May has a working majority of 17 MPs and a very divided and unpredictable party on the issue of Europe. An increased majority will strengthen her position in her own party. With an election, she hopes voters will reinforce the recent Brexit referendum call and turf out of office the anti-Brexit MPs. She is also sending a powerful message to Remain MPs to toe the party line.
- Brexit is going to be even harder: From this move, we can infer May anticipates an even messier, more difficult exit for the UK. With French and German elections imminent, May needs a firm, united approach and strong mandate from both Parliament and the British people to play hardball. Given the significant challenges in negotiating Brexit (any single one of these 34 issues would be a major undertaking for a government), Brexit as its supporters intended it is near impossible, so if May loses, she needs to have thrown everything and the kitchen sink at her attempt. Parliament has so far used its powers to thwart May’s Hard Brexit negotiating strategy, and has sent mixed messages on the UK’s position. A more-firmly Hard Brexit Parliament would bolster May’s position and be less likely to oppose her government during negotiations.
- Wedging the Opposition: May is exploiting Labour’s internal division on Brexit. Corbyn nominally campaigned for Remain, but many observers believe he is actually a Eurosceptic. To the dismay of many in the Labour Party, Corbyn has largely chosen, post-referendum, to support Brexit, with minor opposition to the details of the deal. May will now capitalize on this, as it leaves little daylight between the two parties on the main election question. And her party is by far the most attractive to Leavers. The Remain party – the Liberal Democrats – are unlikely to pose an electoral threat.
Parliament will vote on Wednesday on an election, and given Labour’s support for the Brexit referendum result, it’s likely both Conservatives and Labour will support the vote. In any case, it’s unlikely Labour will have the numbers to successfully oppose the vote in just 24 hours. So the UK is off to the polls. Stay tuned. Given the past year in British politics, anything could happen now.
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