Theresa May Can — And Does
In the recent Brexit campaign, Theresa May confirmed an already settled reputation as a political leader whose watchword was caution. She was thought to lean privately toward Brexit. She prudently opted for the position held by the majority of the cabinet: Remain. She made one not-very-helpful speech supporting EU membership — and left it at that. And after Leave won the vote and David Cameron resigned, she ran successfully for the Tory leadership on a platform of accepting the electorate’s verdict and going unambiguously for Brexit even if the only version on offer was a so-called hard Brexit. There is caution a-plenty in that record; but there is also a clear evolution toward firmness and decision, especially at moments of crisis.
Prime Minister May’s decision yesterday to call for an early election on June 8 demonstrates that decisiveness. There is undoubtedly a strong case, in both national and partisan terms, for an early election. May’s government has a small parliamentary majority that might in theory be whittled away in by-election losses and, on Brexit, in rebellions from the small coterie of ultra-Remainers on the Tory benches. She is faced also by a hostile anti-Brexit majority in the unelected House of Lords that would happily take advantage of any government reverses to delay or halt the progress toward Brexit.
Scotland’s devolved government has been proposing to hold a pre-Brexit second referendum on independence that would further complicate the government’s calculations. Additional legal actions have been threatened by Remainers outside parliament — one in the courts of the Irish Republic — to make Brexit dependent on the agreement of European courts. And all these alarms and excursions would be taking place during the negotiations between London and Brussels on both Brexit and any successor free-trade agreement, injecting new issues into them and weakening London’s ability to get the best possible deal.
From a partisan Tory standpoint, a general election that delivered the May government a larger parliamentary majority, a clear mandate to pursue its own version of Brexit, and a full five years to do so would be a massive improvement on its present straitened circumstances. From a national democratic standpoint, it’s desirable that the electorate’s vote for Brexit — the single biggest democratic vote in British history — should now be carried through to fruition by a government that has won an election on it. Such a result would also reshape the political landscape of Britain to produce a settled post-European polity — as opposed to the years of uncertainty and massive social and political divisions that would be introduced by a surprise Tory defeat.
Unless the current polls are wildly (and universally) wrong, however, we are likely to get a solid Tory victory, if one short of a landslide. Most polls now give the Tories a lead of between 18 and 23 percent over Labour — and a share of the popular vote of between 42 and 44 percent in what is for the moment a four-party system (five-party system if you count the regional Scottish National Party.) May’s Tories will doubtless fall short of that lead in practice because some voters dislike the inconvenience of snap elections and vote against a government that imposes one on them. Also, realignment elections (and this looks like one) usually feature shifts of support between the opposition parties as well as between government and opposition. And there will be plenty of those.
At present, it looks as if Labour (staggering under the burden of its unpopular far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn) will lose as much as a third of its popular vote to other parties. Most will go to the Liberal Democrats, who, as a result, might pick up a few Tory marginal seats against the overall trend. Other Labour votes will go to UKIP, which, however, will lose some of its conservative supporters to the Tories as they return home to their traditional loyalty out of gratitude for Brexit. When the smoke has cleared, however, the Tories can rationally look forward to a parliamentary majority of something between 50 and 70 seats. And there is a strong likelihood that if the Tory and UKIP vote totals are combined, an overall majority for Brexit will have emerged from the popular vote — one not very different from its 52 percent in the referendum.
Judged against such discouraging circumstances and such encouraging prospects, Mrs. May’s courage in calling this election seems not very substantial. But Labour’s Gordon Brown flinched from a similarly attractive proposition when he succeeded Tony Blair and lost four years later; and Jim Callaghan, having passed up a good opportunity to win an election in Fall 1978, fell victim to Mrs. Thatcher’s onslaught six months later. Prime Ministers don’t like to take risks with their own power, and they reckon that possession is nine tenths of the law. It took judgment, courage, and a cool head for Mrs. May to choose the likelihood of five more years in power over the certainty of the next three. Fortune favors the fair but gives no guarantees.
But if we assume that although the race is not always to the swift, that’s the way to bet, what will a Tory victory mean for the future? Its first impact will be that Brexit becomes a certainty. None of the various plots and maneuvers against it will be able to withstand the democratic steamroller of an election victory on a pro-Brexit manifesto. The lawsuits will wither, the Lords will retreat, the civil servants will rediscover the Constitution, the judges will hibernate through the winter of negotiations. And in Brussels, the prospect of the inevitable will clarify the minds of Eurocrats and predispose them to negotiate seriously for a deal that benefits both sides.
None of the various plots and maneuvers against Brexit will be able to withstand the democratic steamroller of an election victory on a pro-Brexit manifesto.
With the certainty of Brexit, the debate over the kind of Brexit will become calmer, less nervy, more a matter of calculation, less one of immediate national destiny. Mrs. May will have the authority to call the shots domestically on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal and on any new relationship with the European Union — and with other trading partners from the U.S. to the CANZUK countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.) to China. She will have the prestige of an election-winner with other countries and the EU, and that will prevent them from exploiting the divisions at home and in her own party against her, as they’re doing now in the EU talks. She can go for a harder Brexit or a softer one with less angst, nervousness, and division among her supporters in business and politics because they will know that the direction to Brexit is fixed and that “all rising is by a winding stair.