Theresa May’s June gambit

Things are moving fast these days: too fast for me to keep up. Donald Trump seems to have changed his foreign policy direction from isolationism to activism, from jaw-jaw to war-war, as he ordered missiles to hit an airbase in Syria and has been making his intentions clear to sort out North Korea with or without China. The Turkish electorate has voted narrowly in favour of constitutional changes and giving the presidency hugely increased powers. And in the UK, Theresa May is seeking an early general election.

Labour – seemingly keen on self-immolation – will vote for an early dissolution of the Parliament according to Jeremy Corbyn, so it should meet the requirement of the two-thirds of the seats of the House of Commons voting for such, and the election will be scheduled to take place on 8 June. Given the fundamental constitutional importance of Brexit, it makes sense for the MPs (and the government) to seek a new mandate.

This is a dissolution by agreement, rather than engineered by the government using the theoretical possibility of allowing a motion of no confidence against it to be passed (the government party abstains and the opposition votes for it) without a new government commanding the confidence of the House (which must happen within 14 days). In the current case, the arguments for a fresh mandate are strong, and it would have been difficult for the opposition not to agree with it. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future when the government of the day attempts to dissolve the Parliament before the end of the fixed term: is the government being opportunistic or the opposition weak, especially when there is no agreement from the opposition for such dissolution?

A general election is always a risky proposition, however Mrs May must be pretty confident that her party will be returned to power. From purely party political point of view, the likely benefit must outweigh the considerable risks. The opinion polls suggest such is the case, and given the dire situation of Labour in the polls and its disastrous leadership, it does look like an opportune moment for Mrs May and the Conservatives. It is perhaps interesting to ponder if this is primarily an offensive or defensive move: it is an offensive move by Mrs May if she believes that she could win the election handsomely; it is a defensive move if she believes that things are going to get worse, not necessarily only in terms of Brexit, but on the bread and butter issues in any general election such as the economy, taxation, NHS, and education.

If the election were held today, it would most likely return an increased Conservative majority in the Parliament. Yet, things can change over the next few weeks. Given the first-past-the-post electoral system in a multi-party political landscape partly fragmented regionally (particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland) and recent fallibility of opinion polls – not many had expected a Conservative majority in the last election, Brexit, or Mr Trump winning the US presidency – the results may surprise us all. The current Conservative majority owes much to the cannibalization of their former coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, in the last election. Can the Conservatives make much headway in Scotland, encroach on Labour heartlands, and keep all the gains from the Liberal Democrats? Scotland does not seem to be a promising place for the Conservatives. It might not be easy for the Conservatives to make huge gains in the number of seats in England and Wales, even with an increased share of the vote nationally, unless there is a total and complete collapse of the Labour vote, and the Liberal Democrats fail to rally those who had voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum.

The biggest risk for Mrs May may be that she has to outline her vision of Brexit more clearly during the campaign, and she may end up alienating not only those who had voted to remain in the EU in the referendum but also those who had voted to leave, since her vision of Brexit is too hard or too soft. Given the widely-shared expectation that she will return as prime minister after the election, she is likely to come under stronger scrutiny compared to others, especially in the early phase of the campaign. Brexit can mean all sorts of things at the moment. The contours of Brexit would have become clearer as negotiations progressed and government could have kept the cards close to its chest: instead the government may have to lay its cards on the table sooner than later. Even if Mrs May were to win convincingly, that doesn’t mean other EU member states have to accept her demands and negotiations will remain tough, but it would cement her domestic position in the UK. I suspect Mrs May will be very circumspect and try to retain as much room of manoeuvre as possible by being as ambiguous as possible, since she would not wish to find herself in an impossible position later, between the promises she makes to the British electorate and things she cannot obtain from the EU.

In case of an increased Conservative majority then, Mrs May’s mandate would become very strong domestically in terms of negotiating Brexit on behalf of the country, and even with a slightly reduced Conservative majority, Mrs May could plausibly claim victory. Things will be pretty messy if the Conservatives were to lose their majority. A Conservative plurality would leave the party struggling to find coalition partners, unless UKIP – what is the party’s raison d’ĂȘtre now? – were to become a sizeable force. The same can be said for a Labour plurality though that is an extremely fanciful notion at the moment. Given the outcomes of recent elections and referendums though, I would not be surprised if the Conservatives were to be returned to power with a huge majority or to lose their current majority.

An attempt to obtain a medium-term stability has led to short-term uncertainty and instability. It is certainly going to be an interesting period.