Brexit looms large over UK election

The Prime Minister’s opportunistic decision to capitalise on her strong domestic standing is complicated by the international context.

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With under a week left to go until the French Presidential elections, and the polls tightening to the extent that the top four candidates are within four percentage points of each other, worried thoughts across the EU were focussed on Paris this morninguntil Theresa May announced a UK general election for June 8th.

Didn’t see that coming? Neither did much of Westminster: May had been fairly firm in recent months that this was not going to happen. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has welcomed the development (bravely, or some might say foolishly, given the current disarray of his party), so the two-thirds majority in the House of Commons that May needs to call the early election seems safe.

Pro-EU groupsespecially the Liberal Democrats party, who have vowed to fight the next election on a platform of reversing the Brexit decision–have hailed the news as the chance that they have been waiting for to steer the UK off its path out of the EU. But the reality is that an early election probably means the opposite. Recent polls (for those who still check them after the Brexit referendum) anticipate the Conservative party winning around 42-43 % of the vote, with Labour around 25% and the Liberal Democrats neck in neck with UKIP at around 11%.

This is the reason that Theresa May has called the election nowto firm up her majority in the House of Commons and give her a freer hand to negotiate her preferred vision Brexit. Will she be successful in extending her majority in the House of Commons?  She does seem to have the political wind behind her, but it may not be quite as easy as she hopes.

The UK is currently a very divided country, with uncertainty rife about the differential impact of a hard Brexit on Scotland, Northern Ireland, London, and elsewhere, and indeed on different sectors of the economy. May’s government is trying to claim that it is carrying out the democratic will of those who voted for Brexit, but it cannot afford to ignore the fears of the other half who voted against it, or indeed those who voted Leave but didn’t anticipate the severing of ties being along such hard lines.

Maintaining this fine balance would be hard enough if the domestic political context was all that Theresa May had to consider. But the Prime Minister’s opportunistic decision to capitalise on her current strong standing vis a vis the opposition becomes more complex when you take the international picture into account.

The UK election campaign will now run–in partconcurrently with the last month of the French election campaign, which concludes on May 7th. It will be a challenge for Theresa May to construct clear campaign messages for a hard-Brexit mandate without some rabble-rousing speeches on why the EU is to blame for all that is wrong in the UK today. But as the two campaigns will now run alongside each other, she may find herself in the uncomfortable position of making similar arguments to Marine Le Pen, whose brand of anti-Europeanism is being unveiled as increasingly blatant xenophobia. May will have to clearly differentiate her anti-EU stance from that of Le Pen to avoid unsettling not only those UK voters who are reluctant to leave the EU at all, but also those who embrace a vision of a globalist UK outside the EU.

The odds are on the prime minister managing to walk this tightrope and achieving a larger majority through calling this sudden election. She is unafraid of a challenge and the opposition is wholly unprepared for an election in less than two months’ time. But if the last roller coaster of a year in international politics has taught us anything, it is to be prepared for the unexpected. The one thing we can assume with certainty is that today’s announcement will not make the UK’s long road out of the EU any less tortuous.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow

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