“At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division.”
At 11.15am on Wednesday, Theresa May announced that there will be a general election on June 8th, a significant step towards implementing her vision of a hard Brexit. In announcing an election – having refused to offer one, up to now – May has taken on considerable political risk.
After all, the very Brexit vote result which delivered her to Number 10 was never meant to have happened. The greater risk, however, is that this election misleads an electorate weary of endless Brexit chatter. If the terms of the debate are not set clearly, Britons may inadvertently allow the Conservative party to define the nature of Britain for decades to come.
Not Another Election
“Not another one… there’s too much politics going on at the moment.”
So said Brenda the Bristolian, interviewed on BBC News Wednesday morning – and a hero on social media by lunchtime. Most people are hardly excited at the prospect of another election. Over the last four years, the Brits have been berated with Scottish Independence, a national general election, several rounds of local elections and a highly divisive referendum.
With each new democratic occasion, one faces a barrage of posturing, promising and polarisation designed to feed the media hype cycle but unbefitting the dignity of the average voter. According to recent polling, the British people are more engaged with politics and better informed about its intricacies than they have been for some time – undoubtedly a good thing. Yet, voter turnout continues to fall. These are the symptoms of a cynical population, ready to debate the issues which matter but sick to death of Westminster politicking.
This is perhaps most obvious in the way support for leaving the European Union has changed over the past 12 months. While only 52% voted for Brexit, 69% now want to see it happen. The author of this article was not alone in hoping that the referendum last June would end the question of leaving the EU. But the argument still rages on.
The Liberal Democrats, for example, continue to stake their political prospects on support for a second referendum – this time on the terms of Brexit. Some early commentary yesterday suggested that the election called in June will in fact function as this second referendum: a vote for the Liberal Democrats will be a vote against hard Brexit, a vote for the Conservatives the opposite. However, this is not the case. The election in June will return the party seen to be the most competent at delivering Brexit, regardless of the type of Brexit it proposes to deliver.
May the Strongest Leader Win
This is hardly surprising. Brexit has fast become an issue of delivery, not one of destination. For this, one can thank the seamless media management of the Conservative party and general irrelevance of the Opposition. Last autumn, there was much discussion about the shades of Brexit available to the UK; now, that rainbow of colours has faded to a single, dark blue. Hard Brexit beckons.
With the remit for political debate narrowed, voters have been left to decide on the competency of each political party, rather than their respective policies and programmes. In such times, voters favour the strongest leaders. This is something Theresa May knows well, having held a significant lead in leadership polling since her ascent to power last July. It was also made the defining issue of her announcement speech:
“The decision facing the country will be all about leadership. It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn.”
May’s election campaign hangs on the truth of this statement. The odds suggest that voters will give her the benefit of the doubt and return a Conservative majority on the basis of leadership and stability. Polling indicates that voters already believe that the purpose of this election is to strengthen the UK’s negotiating position – a matter of delivery.
But this line of reasoning will rob the British electorate of the opportunity to define the destination of Brexit beyond 2019 when the country will, by default, leave the EU. This will happen for two reasons.
In June, empowered by her election victory, May will argue that she has a mandate for her particularly hard kind of Brexit, when the electorate will, in reality, have voted for her strength in leadership. A vote about competence will be held up as a vote for ideas – delivery as destination. The ambiguity of the original referendum question will have been resolved, to the benefit of the Conservative party in power.
It is true that this will carry some wider benefits. British political discourse has been plagued for many months with competing and contradictory interpretations of “what Brexit meant.”
UKIP, for example, has continued to insist that immigration was the major driving force behind the vote but, while it did command significant media attention in the run-up to the referendum, Ashcroft’s polls suggest that the principle of sovereignty was more important.
On the Left, an almost endless parade of London-based commentators has attributed Brexit to Thatcherite deindustrialisation and regional inequality. These claims are, in principle and practice, unprovable. Theresa May will claim to have resolved this impasse, but only through sleight of hand.
Her majority secured, May will have the democratic mandate to guide not only the negotiations running up to 2019 but also the shape of the political economy thereafter. Under the conditions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, May has the right to govern for five years – up to 2022. This will give her government a three-year free license to alter domestic policy, after negotiations close in spring 2019.
As of now, it is impossible to predict what this will look like because so much hangs on the outcome of negotiations. But this is precisely the point. Uncertainty means that no party manifesto will be able to offer a set of realistic policies for the post-Brexit period. So voters heading to the polls in June will select the party best able to carry out negotiations, but will inadvertently deliver a mandate for wider change after those negotiations are concluded.
This is a matter of definite importance to the national interest and the democratic involvement of each and every voter. The election on June 8th will revolve around delivery and competence. But it will also carry importance consequences for the type of Brexit that Britain pursues and, more concerningly, for the future shape of our political economy. Both Theresa May and the Opposition must grapple with this early if Britain is to avoid the double blow of disappointment and disempowerment after Brexit negotiations have been completed.