Brexit Referendum 2.0
To the surprise of Britons, this week Prime Minister Theresa May made her boldest move yet by calling a snap general election for June 8. It is a gamble that has caught her political rivals off-guard and promises to be a game-changer for Brexit, the country’s ongoing process of leaving the European Union.
This snap election is all about entrenching May’s position as the Conservative Party’s leader, so she has the power and legitimacy to carry out her vision for Brexit. The Vote Leave campaign might have won 17.4 million votes in the referendum, but May was propelled to power by events rather than by the electorate, with a slim majority of 17 MPs won by her predecessor in 2015. She is also shackled to the outdated 2015 election platform, which was more of a negotiating document for a potential coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party than a serious program for government. May simply does not have the mandate or the majority to tackle a challenge like Brexit.
Her Conservative Party’s weakness is also a symptom of a broader problem: the current parliament does not reflect the new political divides opened up by last year’s referendum. According to the latest opinion polls, the Conservatives look set to win an dramatically increased majority. The Labour Party is expecting its worst electoral result since the 1930s. The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats are on the march, and the UK Independence Party is sliding further into irrelevancy now that their ultimate goal has been achieved. A fresh parliament is needed to properly reflect the post-Brexit landscape.
It is clear what kind of mandate May wants from the British people. She has fully embraced the key goals of the Vote Leave campaign, almost word for word, by saying Brexit means we “will regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders and we will be free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world.” Despite having been a Remain supporter prior to the referendum, May tied herself inextricably to the Euroskeptic cause. Gone are the days when a Conservative leader had to beg his party to stop “banging on” about Europe.
Securing a personal mandate and a large majority will be crucial for strengthening May’s hand when she goes to Brussels to negotiate with the European Union’s remaining 27 countries. EU negotiators had previously been counting on May’s slim majority as proof of how she would be forced to stay at the negotiating table. With a large majority, May can make good on her declaration that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” It was former Prime Minister David Cameron’s unwillingness to walk away from the table that ultimately doomed his strategy of renegotiating Britain’s relationship to the EU. It is a mistake May is determined to avoid.
There are serious domestic implications for Brexit if Conservatives increase their majority. May’s Government will have to pass landmark bills to introduce post-Brexit policies on customs, fisheries, agriculture, and immigration, as well as a Great Repeal Bill that will transfer EU law onto the British statute book. Having a small majority leaves May very vulnerable to backbench rebellions on these important bills, as well as opposition from the House of Lords. Pro-EU MPs, especially the Liberal Democrats, have already pledged to cause maximum disruption in the House of Commons. Only a large majority will allow May to pass bold, reforming legislation that will do much to define the nature of Brexit.
Increasing the size of her majority would also leave May less dependent on both the pro-EU and pro-Brexit extremes of her party. Politics and diplomacy often require compromises that can be distasteful for purists, and the Brexit process will be no different. When the final Brexit deal goes before MPs for a vote, May will need a parliamentary firewall to fend off any potential rebellions. A particularly sensitive issue is the free movement of people. Instead of ending in 2019 when Britain formally exits, free movement could continue under transitional arrangements and not actually be phased out until the early 2020s. Transitional arrangements could also be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. These will be tough compromises for the Conservatives’ Euroskeptic wing to accept.
This in turn would be accompanied by an opportunity for May to refashion the Conservatives in her own image. Over the next few weeks, local associations in non-Conservative seats will be selecting their candidates to fight the election. They will pick them from a shortlist of three candidates produced by Conservative Central Headquarters. This allows May’s team to promote candidates who share her brand of pro-Brexit, One Nation Conservatism. A new generation of MPs would do a great deal to reinforce the Conservative Party’s credentials as a united Euroskeptic party after decades of division over the question of Europe.
Another aspect of the Brexit process that will be significantly altered is May’s timetable for negotiating an agreement with the EU. By triggering Article 50 last month, May started the clock on the exit process that lasts for a fixed period of two years. Not only do Britain and the EU have to complete an agreement, they also need 28 states to ratify it before the end of March 2019. There is a growing consensus that transitional arrangements will have to be made.
If May waited until the end of the current parliament in 2020 then she would face the ballot box with the job half-done. Calling an election now means that May will receive three years of additional wiggle room in which to complete a smooth and orderly Brexit without having to worry too much about the electoral consequences.
This snap election could give May the personal mandate, large majority, and lengthy timetable she needs in order to secure a successful Brexit. It could also produce a renewed and united Euroskeptic party ready for the parliamentary battles of the future. If May fails to win a landslide majority, then the process of Brexit will be put in jeopardy. By making this electoral gamble, May could very well make or break the future of Brexit.
David A. Cowan is a freelance writer and conservative activist who graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history.