Q&A: The UK Election and the Brexit big picture

By Dr Tom Gerald Daly. Fellow, Melbourne Law School Associate Director, Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced that voters in the UK would be going to the polls again for the third time in three years.

This time for an early general election which, Mrs May says, will give her the ultimate mandate to deliver on Brexit.

We ask Dr Tom Gerald Daly, Fellow at the Melbourne Law School and Associate Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, some key questions about the future of the UK and what the British election could mean for Brexit.

Theresa May

QUESTION 1: British Prime Minister Theresa May has unexpectedly called a general election three years ahead of time. She’s said the vote would strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations – how so?

In her speech announcing the snap election, Theresa May claimed that although the UK is coming together behind Brexit, a general election is the only way to stop further anti-Brexit “political game-playing” within Westminster.

She accused Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP) of all jockeying as the Brexit negotiations with the EU proceed. As May put it, the government’s slim majority is underpinning the opposition’s hopes that they can force it to change course and “Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.”

As well as the apparent belief that a larger majority will strengthen her hand at the EU negotiating table, three further issues are in the mix. First, May herself was not PM when the Conservatives won a majority in the 2015 general election and seems to be seeking a ‘personal’ mandate.

Second is the prospect of crushing Labour as the main opposition party.

And third is that victory in a snap election would push the next scheduled general election off by two years, to 2022, providing  the government with more breathing space to conduct the Brexit negotiations over the coming two years.

QUESTION 2: What does the prospect of a snap election mean for the UK’s main parties and the wider political landscape in Britain (including UKIP)?

The snap election, to be held on 8 June, is clearly no gift to the UK’s opposition parties.  A divided and demoralised Labour faces the prospect of a rout, given that the party is now lagging a full 19 per cent behind the Tories in a recent poll, spurring renewed talk of “the end of the Labour party” (or at least the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership).

For the SNP it presents a risk. The party’s landslide haul of 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in the 2015 General Election can scarcely be improved upon. But a rising Conservative Party and stalled support for independence indicate it could lose some seats.

UKIP faces the stark challenge of proving it is not “yesterday’s party”, having already achieved its principal objective of victory in the Brexit referendum and with many supporters now drifting back to the Tory fold.

Only for the ailing Lib Dems does the election present a real opportunity to increase its share of seats, but even this is not assured and any increase will be modest.

More widely, the snap election has resurrected talk of a “progressive coalition” to defeat the Conservatives, comprising Labour, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and the SNP. However, political analysts have insisted that the numbers simply do not stack up. Even if they did, both Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn have now openly rejected the notion of an alliance.

QUESTION 3: Scotland has already said it will hold a second referendum on independence following the Brexit vote. Will the general election have any impact on those plans?

It certainly could. In Scotland the general election is now being talked of as a “proxy” independence referendum. This could see the Conservatives displacing Labour as the main opposition and the central electoral divide widening between pro-independence and pro-union voters.

The SNP initially claimed that a large majority would render it impossible for Ms May to continue resisting claims for a second referendum. But the party has much to lose from its current strong position, especially if the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, manages an electoral upset. She is the only real threat: in Scotland, as in England, Labour is headed for disaster, and support for the Lib Dems and Greens is at single figures.

Any significant loss of seats could seriously weaken the SNP’s referendum plans. Little wonder that SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has more recently asserted that the election will not affect the mandate for independence it won in the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections. The election has also thrown up new campaign pledges that would affect claims for independence: Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, for instance, has pledged to “radically extend” devolution by ensuring that all powers transferred back from Brussels should go straight back to the devolved administrations - in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It’s a very different prospect to May’s “wait and see” approach.  

QUESTION 4. How has the European Union reacted to the announcement that the UK will go to the polls for the third time in three years?

The EU reaction has been mixed, reflecting the many different actors on the Brussels side of the equation. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council (the EU’s executive) indicated that he had a positive phone call with Ms May about the elections.

The head of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani says having a stable negotiating partner could only be a good thing. While anonymous EU sources have voiced a hope that the general election could produce a strong leader in London negotiating with wide support from the public.

However, in a hot-tempered Guardian opinion piece the Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament (and former Belgian PM), Guy Verhofstadt, railed against what he called an “attempted power grab by the Tories”, denouncing it as motivated by internal party machinations and insisting that boosted Conservative numbers will be “an irrelevance” for those around the negotiating table in Brussels.

QUESTION 5: What do you think is the likely outcome of these elections? And what impact will that have on Brexit?

The likely, although far from definite, that the outcome is a large majority for the Conservative Party, with polls suggesting it could even breach the 100 mark. This would be a major increase from its current 17-member majority.

However, in terms of the Brexit negotiations themselves, this may do little to strengthen Ms May’s hand. Beyond Mr Verhofstadt’s tirade, some point to Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, whose decisive victory in a snap election in 2015 did little to change the EU’s negotiating position on bailout terms.

More importantly perhaps, some have suggested that with a sufficiently enlarged majority Ms May would be less dependent on the ‘hard Brexit’ faction within her own party, and could steer a more moderate course in the negotiations. That is something that many observers both within  the UK and Ireland, to the wider EU and beyond, will be hoping for.

On the other hand, promises made during the election campaign could narrow the government’s room to manoeuvre when talks are underway.  With so much in the mix and with the vote still more than a month away, only the foolhardy would make definite predictions: there can be no snap judgments about this snap election.

Banner image: Westminster Bridge, London. Credit: Ricardo Santeugini/Flickr

2nd image: British Prime Minister, Theresa May. Credit: Image from the PM's official Twitter account

This article was first published by Pursuit

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politics; foreign-policy; election; policy Politics; Foreign Policy; Election; Policy