Rob Murat, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
The British people, myself included, were expecting their next opportunity to elect members of parliament to be three years from now. Last Tuesday, Theresa May called for a snap election, to take place on June 8th. Britain now has less than two months to decide on a new government.
Prime Minister’s reserve the right to call an election at their discretion, however It’s worth noting that this sort of action appeared be going out of fashion. In 2010, parliament adopted fixed terms, ensuring that there was always a maximum time limit on the life of an administration. The last general election was held May 2015 which meant that the next scheduled election would be May 2020 (as parliaments have a fixed lifespan of five years). With a snap election however, that timetable is scrapped.
But why did this happen? It’s all about Brexit. I will propose three reasons. The weaknesses of May’s opposition, division over Brexit, and Theresa May’s need for democratic legitimacy.
In my previous contribution to Eurasia, I discussed the weaknesses of Theresa May’s opposition. I would again reiterate that May faces no real effective opposition. The traditional opponents to the Conservative party, Labour, are not in a fit state to oppose the Conservatives. The party is divided in it’s stance on Brexit. Corbyn demands that the party see it through to the end, whereas others in the party feel that they must embrace the cause of remaining in the European Union. This internal division undermines party unity, puts across a mixed message, and does not present an attractive leadership option. Not a recipe for electoral success. The party might have the advantage in terms of party membership, but the polling numbers tell a different story. It obviously remains to be seen how the third parties in the political arena will handle the situation. They could have a profound influence: voters might rally towards Liberal Democrat or Green Party candidates as a way of supporting Remain. This does risk further undermining Labour’s vote share, after all First Past the Post demands unified electoral support. Or on the other hand, it could enough voters suffering from post-Brexit regret to defect. The point is that this is unlikely to be enough to topple the Conservatives. They’re still the most popular, secure, and unified party. Holding an election now tightens the Conservative grip on power because there may well be nothing stopping them from claiming a more legitimate five years (or less) of government.
Speaking of legitimacy: Theresa May needs to get her own democratic mandate. It was David Cameron who was elected last time around. David Cameron who supported a European Britain. For many voters, this new election may have actually been a long time coming, particularity for Conservatives who are dismayed by the referendum result. While the divisions between Conservatives aren’t as striking or newsworthy as those that beset Labour, they must surely need resolution. But also for the electorate at large; Theresa May needs to prove that she is the one empowered to lead the country through such important times. The critical process of leaving the EU will be continually be harried by her opponents and if she lacks a proper mandate, secured through an election, her agenda will be harder fought at every step. The winning manifesto of 2015 held only the promise of a referendum, not of leaving the EU or what that truly meant. The government must go to the electorate to vindicate their agenda.
Lastly, this new election will work towards settling the issue of what “Brexit” actually means, if it goes ahead at all. There’s a lot that the referendum did not tell us. The only issue on the ballot was whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union. That leaves quite a lot up for debate, something has been the source of much debate and derision. Does this mean a complete break from the EU? From Europe entirely? Is there room for negotiation, I.E could Britain be persuaded to stay given alterations to their membership or indeed the structure of the EU? Does a Brexit vote mean a rejection of globalism? Does it mean that the public wish to see a isolated Britain, with no foreign commitments such as aid, asylum, or peacekeeping? Do we even still want to leave the EU? Following broken promises and sudden realisations after the result, opinion polls found many suffering remorse and regret for their choices. Given everything that has come to pass in the past ten months the electorate may wish to reverse course and reject Brexit altogether. A general election won’t give us all of the answers, but it will give us and the winning party an idea of what exactly the public want in relation to a Brexit process. That is of course assuming that there is a clear electoral winner with a clear message.
This snap election is an opportunity for the Conservative party to secure political dominance.s Brexit has changed the political landscape and without a clear democratic mandate the leadership of the country is jeopardy. Theresa May needs to prove that she is the leader that Britain wants to lead them through Brexit (if that is indeed what they want). The sorry state of her opponents is even more incentive to appeal to the public, working to ensure another five years of Conservative rule.