Theresa May’s surprise announcement that a general election will be held June 8 sent Britain’s political journalists scrambling back to London from their Easter vacations. A vicar’s daughter with a reputation for cautious pragmatism, May was chosen as a safe pair of hands to replace David Cameron as prime minister after the latter’s Brexit referendum gamble ended in defeat. In calling a general election, May has shown she is willing to take a gamble of her own.
Why would the reputably risk-averse May call an election now, three years before the next scheduled national ballot in 2020? There are three main reasons. First, she is likely to win. Opinion polls suggest that holding an election now is no risk at all. A YouGov survey of voting intentions on April 12 and 13 shows May’s governing Conservative Party more than 20 points ahead of the main opposition Labour Party. Given their lead in the polls, Conservative members of Parliament have been pushing a reluctant May to call an election since she took office last summer. May’s initial hesitancy was not unfounded. U.K. opinion polls have a history of inaccurate performance, most recently failing to predict Cameron’s election victory in 2015. But when the polls have been wrong, they have usually underestimated Conservative support relative to Labour. That is good news for May.
Her confidence is further bolstered by Labour’s civil war. Left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn does not command support among the majority of more moderate-inclined Labour MPs. Nor is Corbyn’s standing any better outside Parliament. Asked who would make the best prime minister, only 14 percent of British voters chose Corbyn, compared with 50 percent citing May. Corbyn is already a bogeyman in the Tory press. With the election campaign underway, May’s media allies will further decry Corbyn as a dangerously radical and incompetent leader — ignoring the paradox of their propaganda. May hopes that Labour’s strife will translate into an increased majority for the Conservatives. But it is not only Labour’s woes she seeks to exploit with an early election.
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last June was a high point for the anti-Europe UK Independence Party. But support for UKIP is declining rapidly. Success in the EU referendum robbed the party of its reason for being. A series of controversies involving UKIP leader Paul Nuttall, including alleged false claims in his resume, have further blighted the party’s fortunes. Having stolen UKIP’s position as the main champions of Brexit, May is positioning the Conservatives to pick up many of the 3.8 million votes cast for UKIP in 2015.
Occupying UKIP’s former ideological territory could cost May among moderate Conservatives who voted to remain in the EU. The likely beneficiaries are the Conservative’s former coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats. With only eight MPs at the moment, the Liberal Democrats will also gain support from disaffected Labour voters and first-time voters disproportionately in favor of retaining close ties with the EU. May is betting that any surge in support for the Lib Dems will be offset by defections to the Conservatives by voters from other parties and by the vagaries of the British electoral system, which disadvantage smaller parties in the distribution of parliamentary seats.
May’s second reason for calling an election is to win a mandate for Brexit negotiations with the EU. This is May’s stated reason for changing her previous position that an early general election was unnecessary. Announcing the election on April 11, May cited opposition to Brexit from Labour, the Lib Dems and House of Lords as undermining national unity and Britain’s negotiating position in Europe. Putting to one side that it is the job of opposition parties to oppose, the vast majority of Labour MPs and peers voted last month in favor of the government’s bill to trigger Article 50 and begin Britain’s formal withdrawal from the EU. The mandate May is seeking is from her own MPs, a vocal minority of whom will accept nothing but a hard Brexit — a total severance with the EU, including exit from a common customs union as well as the single market. May, who supported remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum campaign — albeit half-heartedly — wants a more amicable split. Recent statements also suggest that the prime minister recognizes that exit negotiations will take far longer than the two years tabled by Article 50. Mechanisms exist to extend negotiations and to establish a transition period. But many of May’s MPs want a quickie divorce. Winning an election with an increased majority and a personal mandate will help May overcome Conservative opposition to maintaining links with the EU beyond 2019 — links necessary for the health of the British economy, the well-being of British nationals residing the EU and vice versa.
Finally, May has the EU referendum to thank for putting her in Downing Street but is reluctant to accept her fate as Britain’s Brexit prime minister. In calling an early election, she hopes to gain more time to pursue her agenda and define her premiership beyond bringing Britain out of the EU. Whether or not her election gamble pays off, Britain’s second female prime minister has shown that she has balls.
Tina Burrett is an associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
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