Sunday 17 November 2019

Everything you need to know about the UK's snap election dubbed the latest 'Brexit plot twist'

British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
British Prime Minister Theresa May Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

Colm Kelpie

Prime Minister Theresa May has rolled back and opted to call a snap election on June 8. Here is everything you need to know:

Q: I'm fed up with elections. What's this latest one about now?

A: I feel your pain. Between the Brexit referendum less than a year ago, the United States election, the Dutch vote, the Assembly election in Northern Ireland and the first round of voting in France due this weekend, we're all feeling a little election fatigue.

Now we have six weeks of campaigning in Britain ahead of a snap ballot on June 8 that will be dominated by Brexit.

Essentially Prime Minister Theresa May - who had previously publicly stated that she didn't want an election - is now gambling that her U-turn will ultimately strengthen her hand going in to the Brexit talks, and ward off criticisms from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even some within her own party that a vote to leave the EU last June didn't necessarily mean the so-called hard Brexit she's now pushing.

Q: Strengthen her hand? You assume she'll win?

A: I wouldn't bet on the outcome of any election these days, but certainly recent opinion polls suggest she has strong public backing - thanks, at least in part, to the fact that the economy appears to be weathering the Brexit vote.

I know, I know, it's hard to rely on opinion polls anymore, but it's the only gauge we have.

The Conservative Party is around 20 points ahead of Labour, and her own personal ratings far outstrip those of Jeremy Corbyn. Timing is also on her side. While the economy may have proved more resilient to the Brexit vote than expected, cost of living in the UK is on the up and experts believe that will inevitably hit consumer spending and confidence.

Better, therefore, to hold an election now than wait for any economic ill winds to materialise.

And for Mrs May, an election win would be a personal vote of confidence. Remember she took over the reins at Downing Street in the wake of the referendum fallout, and not on the back of a national poll.

A decisive win in the form of a continued Conservative majority, should that occur, would be a personal endorsement for her. A lot can happen in a six-week campaign, but it would be quite the turnaround were she to loose ground. And don't forget, prior to yesterday, the next UK election was due in 2020, right at the start of the planned transition period.

Q: But did Theresa May not just formally notify Europe that the UK wants to leave the EU? Will an election not interfere with that process?

A: You're right. Mrs May triggered the Brexit process at the end of March. But remember, talks haven't started yet. We're currently in the talks-about-talks phase, and both sides are at the final preparations stage.

The EU is tweaking its draft negotiating guidelines, with leaders set to sign off on them at a special Brexit summit in Brussels on April 29. Then they have to go to foreign ministers to drill down in more detail.

Q: So the talks won't be delayed?

A: It's possible that the date could slip a little, possibly by a matter of weeks. It had been expected that negotiations would begin at the start of June. If the election is June 8, a new British cabinet then needs to be formed, so it's possible there could be a short delay.

But if Mrs May does win a majority as expected, it's unlikely she would want to be seen to be holding up the negotiations.

At any rate, it's long been expected that the talks on the future post-Brexit arrangement won't kick off until the autumn at the earliest anyway, as the initial process will be dominated by the amount of money the UK must pay the EU, citizens rights, and possibly Northern Ireland and the Border issue.

The bigger issue for businesses in the UK is whether an election over the coming weeks will distract the prime minister from the Brexit negotiations, the country's strategy, and securing the best deal.

Q: What does all this mean for Ireland?

A: For the Government, the big concern seems to be Northern Ireland.

The North is already mired in a political crisis and facing the prospect of either a second Assembly election or direct rule from London if the current round of political talks fail.

A UK-wide election complicates that, as the parties involved will have to kick back into election gear. It's hard to imagine they would suddenly strike a deal when there's no UK government in place anyway.

So it potentially means yet more instability for a region expected to be the worst hit in the UK from a Brexit. It was telling that Mrs May made no reference to the North in her speech yesterday.

But that's not the only potential problem for the Government here. If Mrs May does indeed secure an overall majority, it's conceivable that will embolden the prime minister as the talks process kicks off. She could view that as a mandate for the tough position she has taken to date, and that could mean an even harder stance in the negotiations.

Then again, she may come under pressure during the election campaign to tone down that rhetoric from businesses and others less enamoured with Brexit. It also could end up with a more unified British position, and allow her to resist pressure from hardliners demanding an abrupt exit.

Q: What are European leaders saying?

A: The EU broadly welcomed the election, which European Council president Donald Tusk likened to a Hitchcock plot twist.

Irish Independent

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