Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Snap Judgments on Snap Elections in the UK
Snap Judgments on Snap Elections in the UK

Snap Judgments on Snap Elections in the UK

As Europe digests the results of last Sunday’s referendum in Turkey and prepares for this weekend’s first round of presidential elections in France, Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom has added a further electoral entrée to the Continental smorgasbord. This morning, the PM announced her decision to call for an early parliamentary election, proposing that parliament dissolve on 3 May and that new elections take place on 8 June.

This announcement is not the first time that a British Prime Minister has called for a “snap” election before Parliament’s formal term expires, but it is the first time since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act tightened the regulations of such a decision. According to that law, parliamentary terms are set for five years (meaning the next scheduled general election would have been in 2020), unless a 2/3 supermajority in the House of Commons votes in favor of early dissolution. With PM May’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour party each signaling support for the decision, that vote appears to be a foregone conclusion.

Why did May choose this course of action? In some ways, her motivations are the same as for other prime ministers who have called snap elections in the past. After winning the 2015 general election, the Conservatives have held a narrow majority in the house of Commons (330 of 650 seats), but since then, the Labour Party appears to be in such disarray that polls suggest an early election offers a real opportunity to widen their lead. Furthermore, Prime Minister May gained office not through that general election victory, but through intra-party maneuvering after her predecessor David Cameron’s decision to resign last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum. So, she has an interest in claiming an independent mandate as she attempts to guide the UK through the process of turning the vote for Brexit into reality.

Brexit is the issue which gives her decision a significantly different cast from previous snap elections. The May government formally triggered the two-year process of leaving the European Union on March 29, which means that by the end of March 2019, the UK will no longer be a member of the EU. The concrete shape of a post-EU United Kingdom—its relations with its former partners, and with the rest of the world, not to mention whether the UK, facing secessionist rumblings in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, will be united at all—will depend on the deals that Her Majesty’s Government is able to negotiate. Initially, hoping to avoid instability, May had declared her intention to work out those deals with her current majority, and then frame her 2020 re-election campaign as a referendum on her handling of Brexit. After several months of turbulent debates in both Houses of Parliament over the strategy of Brexit, however, May has apparently decided that she needs a clearer mandate from the British electorate to weaken opposition forces in all parties and perhaps even to send a message to frustrated “Remain” voters that she has the country behind her and that they should give up hopes of reversing the relatively narrow result of last years’ Brexit vote.

Political cynics would also mention that an electoral mandate would also make it easier for Prime Minister May to reshuffle her government. Mounting criticism of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson in particular has become a problem, especially because of the Foreign Office’s central role in Brexit talks. May put Johnson in Whitehall in the name of party unity during the maneuvers that brought her into No. 10 Downing Street. Firing the bumptious Brexiteer would thus be politically awkward. A strengthened, post-election May, however, could announce a Cabinet reorganization, putting people more loyal to her personally into key positions and clarifying the lines of responsibility.

So it is not difficult to see why calling an early election makes sense for the prime minister, even if critics such as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accuse her of “one of the most extraordinary U-turns in recent political history” and  “once again putting the interests of her party ahead of those of the country.”

There is the risk that a poor performance by the Tories could mean that May comes out weaker rather than stronger, but she has several factors in her favor. Most importantly, the Labour Party remains a disaster. Jeremy Corbyn’s weak and ambivalent role in last year’s Brexit referendum exposed deep divisions. Although he won re-election as party leader thanks to his popularity with the left-wing rank and file, many traditional Labour constituencies (working class voters in small towns as well as educated professionals in the big cities) are disillusioned. Polls indicate Labour is facing a debacle on the scale of Thatcher-era drubbings of 1983 and 1987.

Pro-EU voters may dream of using this election to re-run the Brexit referendum, but the British electoral system offers them little opportunity to do so. Conservative Remainers are likely to be wooed back into the fold by the desire to secure their party’s majority. Labour, worried about losing working class voters to the hard core Euroskeptics of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), are unlikely to make remaining in the EU part of their campaign. With the two major parties apparently focused on negotiating the terms of Brexit rather than rethinking it, the only party likely to stand up for remaining in the EU are the Liberal Democrats, who claim a surge in members over the past year but who are still smarting from their disappointing showing in 2015 and the criticism they earned for their coalition with Cameron and the Tories from 2010-2015. It will be worth watching to see if the LibDems rise in enough cosmopolitan boroughs to challenge May’s majority, but that is a long shot.

One party whose fate may depend on this election is the aforementioned UKIP. As the most enthusiastic Brexiteers, UKIP claimed victory in last year’s referendum, but since then, the party has been struggling to decide what it stands for. Should it simply count their winnings in shillings and pence and head off to the pub for a few pints (NOT half-liters) and a couple of appropriately curved bananas, assuming its work is done? Or should it attempt to position itself as a permanent fixture on the British political spectrum, a populist alternative to both major parties? Current poll numbers indicate the party’s future is unclear. The results of this election will tell us more about its future.

The last wild card in this discussion is the question of Scottish or Northern Irish secession, which deserves its own essay. Both of those regions voted to Remain in the EU, and in both, one hears a rising chorus speculating about exiting the UK. Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party have announced plans to push for a new independence referendum, but the result there is far from certain. If this general election follows the pattern set in 2015—Tory victories south of Hadrian’s Wall, SNP dominance in Scotland, and Labour gravely weakened—divisions between Westminster and Holyrood will only get deeper, no matter how big Theresa May’s majority in the House of Commons may be.

All of these moving parts remind us that these elections will not happen in a vacuum. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that electoral results can always surprise the most confident analysts, and results in one place can influence what happens in the next. The mere fact that the British will vote after the French have selected a new president, for example, may seal the fate of the EU even before the Germans go to the polls this fall. Or maybe not. We are still working through a substantial period of uncertainty, as weakened political establishments struggle to respond to populist challenges. Now that British voters will add their voices to the cacophony, harmony continues to recede into the distance.