Global Affairs

UK election: Asking Britons how they want Brexit served

The June 8 poll may put British PM Theresa May's rivals on the back foot, but it won't strengthen her negotiation position on Brexit

LONDON • In the end, she could not resist the temptation. After months of being confronted by opinion polls indicating that she enjoys a lead of over 20 percentage points against her opponents, British Prime Minister Theresa May threw all caution to the winds and announced an early general election, now scheduled for June 8.

Politically, this was a masterstroke. Not only was her timing right, but uniquely for a country where almost everything a government proposes to do is leaked to the media, Mrs May's decision to dissolve Parliament three years ahead of the expiry of the current electoral term also caught all her opponents unprepared, precisely what the British leader sought to achieve.

Barring some monumental and currently unforeseen surprises, therefore, Mrs May is guaranteed to get a large majority in Parliament; the last time a Conservative leader achieved such a feat was almost exactly three decades ago, and the mastermind of that electoral victory was also a woman: Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

VICTORY WON'T MAKE BREXIT TALKS EASIER

But if Mrs May genuinely believes that, as she put it, "the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead" is for Britain to hold early elections, she is gravely mistaken, for the snap ballots will not make the negotiations of Britain's exit from the European Union (EU) any easier. Nor is the vote likely to determine Britain's identity after it leaves the EU.

It's worth mentioning right from the start that while Mrs May's ability to spring such an electoral surprise is clearly an asset, it also acts as a reminder of her potential future vulnerability. For the British Premier is not a collegiate politician; she beavers away at her documents alone, shielded from the daily tussle of London politics by a small group of fiercely loyal assistants who'd genuinely lay down their own lives for her. Keeping a major secret such as the plan to hold early elections is easier within this small magic circle. But the existence of this inner circle is also a danger in itself.

For the moment, Mrs May's governance style is popular, since it stands in sharp contradiction to the chummy but ultimately improvised and accident-prone ways of Mr David Cameron, her immediate predecessor as Britain's premier. Unlike Mr Cameron's off-the-cuff policymaking ways, Mrs May makes sure that her aides inform her of the pros and cons of every decision she has to make. By rejecting flashy behaviour, Mrs May also exudes the kind of authority Mr Cameron never mustered.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Still, soon after her anticipated electoral victory on June 8, Mrs May will discover that British prime ministers who run very tightly controlled private offices are soon accused of cliquish and authoritarian behaviour. Mrs May is particularly vulnerable to such accusations because she makes almost no effort to engage with ordinary MPs from her ruling Conservative Party and treats parliamentary colleagues as employees who must do as they are told, rather than as colleagues in a joint, like-minded political enterprise.

And, paradoxically, the bigger her majority turns out to be in the next Parliament, the bigger her problem of domestic political control becomes, for there is hardly an unrulier party than Britain's Conservatives when they know that their reign is assured. It is by now conveniently forgotten that the Conservative Party overthrew Mrs Thatcher as prime minister at a time when it enjoyed a majority of almost 150 MPs over the Labour opposition.

Admittedly, Mrs Thatcher was deposed after more than a decade in power, while Mrs May has yet to mark her first year in office. Still, the fact remains that, next to having a very narrow parliamentary majority, the biggest political curse for a British premier is to enjoy a crushing Parliament advantage of the kind Mrs May is currently aiming for.

Mrs May's belief that holding a ballot now will strengthen her hand in the divorce negotiations with the EU is also exaggerated. Mrs May clearly wants to silence both the virulently anti-EU and the ardently pro-European backbench MPs from within her own party, the sort of people who destroyed the careers of four previous Conservative prime ministers in as many decades.

Yet there is little chance of that happening. The cohort of anti-European MPs is likely to be boosted by the early elections; most of those aspiring to enter Parliament for the first time in June detest the EU. But although some pro-Europeans will retire from Parliament, their nuisance value to Theresa May remains undiminished, since they will snipe at her from outside Parliament, providing the media with plenty of opportunities to continue claiming that the ruling Conservatives remain split over Europe.

There is an inherent danger in the British Prime Minister making Europe the central plank of the forthcoming electoral campaign, for her party may well lose votes and parliamentary seats as a result. The biggest threat to the Conservatives in these snap elections is not Labour, their perennial centre-left opponent, but rather the small Liberal Democrat party, which is campaigning on an unashamedly pro-EU platform and which may well attract the votes of Britain's young, who wanted their country to remain part of the EU and are angered by Britain's anti-European tilt.

There is also the risk that early general elections will do nothing to deflate demands for Scotland's break-up from the rest of Britain. Until now, Mrs May dismissed demands from nationalists who run the regional government to hold a fresh referendum on Scotland's independence by arguing that "now is not the time" for such diversions. But the British Premier now faces accusations that, while she failed to find time to accommodate a Scottish referendum, she had no problems squeezing in a general election which is neither required, nor urgent.

If Mrs May's Conservatives succeed in capturing a few parliamentary seats from the Scottish nationalists, then her electoral gamble would have succeeded in at least deflating separatist demands. But if this gambit fails, the outcome will be grave: a Scottish national party which feels vindicated, and intensifies demands for a referendum on Scotland's secession from the United Kingdom.

UNCERTAIN PLACE IN THE WORLD

But the biggest problem with the current electoral campaign is in what it avoids discussing. Apart from some empty slogans about a "Global Britain", there is no serious talk about Britain's place in the world after the country leaves the EU. A cohort of youngish Conservative MPs is dreaming about creating a system of "preferential" free trade agreements with the English-speaking former members of the British empire, an option derisively referred to inside government circles in London as "Empire 2.0".

The Prime Minister herself knows that this is nonsense, but she has shown little interest in either disabusing her colleagues of such dreams, or in articulating her own vision for Britain's future. Nor is there evidence that a post-elections May government will muster either the determination or the decision-making capacity to remain a global player, beyond the confines of Europe and its approaches.

And although the British Prime Minister may find it easier to start the looming separation talks with the EU once she knows that she holds an electoral mandate which allows her to remain in power until 2022, Europeans are unlikely to be impressed by this, and EU officials won't give Britain a better divorce deal as a result.

Mr Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium and now the European Parliament's coordinator on the separation with Britain, dismissively but perhaps accurately described Britain's snap elections as an exercise in "asking the British people how they would like their full English Brexit served".

In other words, the menu is preordained and not subject to change; only its ingredients can be rearranged on the British plate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'UK election: Asking Britons how they want Brexit served'. Print Edition | Subscribe