Wednesday 17 January 2018

Betting on Brexit: Can an election silence the Remainers for good?

Theresa May took a calculated gamble in calling a snap election but with the electorate still at odds over Brexit, her hoped-for landslide victory is by no means certain

Theresa May has said 'all bits of the EU' will be discarded in a hard Brexit
Theresa May has said 'all bits of the EU' will be discarded in a hard Brexit
Pro-EU protesters outside Westminster
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, whose party is opposed to Brexit

Andrew Hammond

Prime Minister Theresa May announced on Tuesday that she is engineering a snap general election for June 8 with Brexit being the primary motivation.

The unexpected announcement, which the House of Commons ratified on Wednesday, signals the third UK-wide vote in two years and has taken the country by surprise following repeated denials from Downing Street that an early national ballot would be called before the previously scheduled one in 2020.

May's Conservative Party currently has a strong lead in polls, and her calculated gamble in calling the ballot is based on the premise that she can now win a huge, historic victory to not just secure a personal mandate as prime minister but also bolster her current fragile majority in the House of Commons. This is by no means certain, however, in what will be a potentially remarkable election, in unusual circumstances, which May is trying to base around a single issue.

For the chief reason the prime minister asserted for her spectacular U-turn over calling an early poll is that opposition parties are, by and large, at odds with her Brexit plan. She told the country that she is not prepared to allow her political opponents to jeopardise the forthcoming exit negotiations with the EU. In her own words, the "country is coming together, but Westminster is not" and what the country needs is "certainty, stability and strong leadership".

Pro-EU protesters outside Westminster
Pro-EU protesters outside Westminster

Tensions on Brexit

However, far from the nation pulling together in the way May asserts, there are in fact stark intra-UK divisions over Brexit, with not just Scotland, but also Northern Ireland and some large English and Welsh cities such as London and Cardiff having sizeable majorities last year to remain in the EU.

Indeed, given opposition of most key party leaders in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to May's Brexit vision, the forthcoming exit negotiations with the EU could test existing UK constitutional and legal frameworks to their limits, as may well become apparent during the election campaign.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) have, for instance, said that the Conservative UK government is "leading [the nation] blindly off a hard Brexit cliff". She has asserted that Scotland, which voted 62-38 to remain in the EU, must have a proper choice about its future in a second Scottish independence referendum before the United Kingdom leaves the EU, a prospect that has so far been ruled out by May. This will be a rallying cry of the SNP campaign in coming weeks.

Scotland is by no means alone in its discontent, however. In Northern Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin leader Michelle O'Neill has said that May has "ignored the views of the majority of the people" in the country who voted by 56pc to 44pc to remain.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has also asserted that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday peace deal, and poses a unique opportunity to "unite the island of Ireland". His argument is that it makes no sense, going forward, to have one part of island (the Republic of Ireland) within the EU and the other outside it (Northern Ireland).

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, whose party is opposed to Brexit
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, whose party is opposed to Brexit

The Remainer turned Brexiteer

Debates about Brexit are thus ringing their way right around the nation from Scotland, to Northern Ireland, but also Wales and England too. For instance, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has made clear his concerns about the implication of Brexit for the metropolis which also voted overwhelmingly last year to remain in the EU.

One of the key discussions under way across the United Kingdom between the 52pc who voted to leave, and the 48pc plumping for remain, is what the true meaning and implications are of last June's referendum which may yet become a trigger for a series of profound changes to the nation's unity, constitution, identity, political economy, and place in the world.

The prime minister - a reluctant Remainer who has turned into a staunch Brexiteer - has made clear her strong view that immigration and sovereignty were the primary drivers behind the Leave campaign's victory last summer. From this perspective, it follows that controlling migration flows from the EU and ending the jurisdiction in the United Kingdom of the European Court of Justice should therefore become the key UK objectives for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. Given the EU's commitment to the free movement of goods, people, services, and capital, this has pushed May towards a hard Brexit negotiating stance which opposition parties have expressed grave concerns about.

This hard Brexit will see the United Kingdom, in May's words, discarding all "bits of the EU". This includes membership of the 500 million consumer European Single Market, full membership of the EU Customs Union, leaving the Common Commercial Policy, and no longer being tied to the Common Commercial Tariff.

Divergence in Brexit camp

However, May's narrative about Brexit is far from the entire picture, and there were - in fact - diverse and sometimes divergent views expressed by people voting to exit the EU last year. Some Leave voters, for instance, including some isolationalists, focused last June on perceived costs and constraints of EU membership other than immigration and sovereignty, including the issue of UK financial contributions to the supranational organisation's budget. Many UK voters were encouraged by the claim made in the referendum that leaving the EU would mean a mammoth £350m a week financial bonanza that could be ploughed back into the National Health Service.

However, this misleading pledge has since been dropped by Brexiteers.

Others voted to leave the EU for a vision of a buccaneering global UK that could, post-Brexit, allow the nation to secure new ties with non-EU countries, including in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and the Americas. Meanwhile, a significant slice of the electorate voted Leave as a protest against non-EU issues such as the domestic austerity measures implemented by the UK governments since the 2008-09 international financial crisis.

No consensus

Contrary to what many Brexiteers now insist, the Leave vote therefore encapsulated a range of sentiments, and there was (and still is) not an overwhelming consensus across the nation behind any specific version of Brexit, whether hard or soft, disorderly or orderly.

Indeed, the continuing divisions within the electorate on these issues - perhaps as big as on the basic merits of last June's referendum decision itself - are still underlined in polls which tend to show the country split over whether maintaining access to the European Single Market, or being able to limit migration, should be the key objective in negotiations.

These are the key questions that May wants to now try to see resolved in the forthcoming election in which she is seeking her first mandate from the country as Conservative Party leader. She will assume - should she win a vastly bigger majority in the House of Commons - that she has the backing of the country behind her hard-Brexit stance and believes this will empower her in the forthcoming negotiations with the EU.

She hopes that if she can win a huge, historic victory, it would send a clear signal to Brussels and the remaining 27 EU states that May's government is resolute, and that the best win-win solution for all sides would be to move speedily toward a mutually agreeable long-term trading relationship. The prime minister feels this is important given a lingering belief in some quarters of Europe that the UK populace might still be persuaded to change its mind over Brexit, especially given the closeness of last year's referendum.

The Lib-Dem factor

While the precise result of the forthcoming election is uncertain, one factor that has become clearer since last year's referendum is how Brexit is driving new positioning, and potentially even new pro and anti-EU electoral cleavages, by some of the UK's main political parties (those with representation in England, Scotland and Wales). On one pole, the Conservatives have made a significant shift and are unifying around the government's hard-Brexit stance. Like the prime minister herself, this includes many former Remainers who have now switched sides to back her EU exit vision.

The other major party with a pro-Brexit message is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Yet, its vote could now be squeezed by the significant shift in the positioning of the Conservatives toward a hard EU exit.

Conversely, the Tim Farron-led Liberal Democrats are seeking to make political capital through steadfast opposition to Brexit. This stance has given the party clearer differentiation against many of the main UK parties, and led it in December to a by-election victory in Richmond Park in London against the Conservatives when Brexit was the defining issue.

Taken overall, May's election announcement underlines that her government will be defined by last year's referendum and its aftermath. The prime minister has taken a calculated gamble on her expectation she will win a huge, historic victory on June 8, yet the Conservative's sizeable polling lead could soften during the campaign if opposition parties turn in a strong performance and present an attractive 'Brexit and beyond' vision for the UK that mobilises voters.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

Tough talk: May in her own words

"Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger…"

"Politics could do with some bloody difficult women actually."

(when Ken Clarke called her "bloody difficult")

"You know what some people call them? The nasty party."

(on the UK Labour Party)

"I think there can only ever be one Margaret Thatcher. I'm not someone who naturally looks to role models."

"Haven't you ever noticed? Sometimes opposites attract."

(on meeting President Trump)

"Yes, it takes two men to step into the shoes of one woman"

(On being replaced as chairman by Lord Saatchi and Liam Fox in 2003)

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