General election fever and Theresa May’s Brexit travails

The election may bolster the Tories at home. But such punch may be puny in Europe

British Prime Minister Theresa May called on Tuesday (April 18) for an early election on June 8, saying the government had the right plan for negotiating the terms of Britain's exit from the European Union and she needed political unity in London.

 

When Lee Rowley knocks on bungalow doors in the North East Derbyshire town of Dronfield, he immediately reassures those who answer that he is not trying to sell them double glazing. When he tells them he is from the Conservatives, the response is mostly positive, although some warn that his party has no hope of winning.

Prime minister Theresa May said on Tuesday she had “reluctantly” taken the decision to seek a snap election on June 8th, after seeing other parties “playing games” with the process of preparing for Brexit negotiations. The contest could see her party increasing its majority in parliament.

This constituency, in the heart of Derbyshire’s mining district, has been solidly Labour for almost a century and last sent a Conservative to Westminster in 1931. Two years ago, however, Rowley (36) came within 1,900 votes of unseating Labour’s Natascha Engel, leaving her with the 17th-smallest Labour majority in the country. If he is selected as the Conservative candidate by local activists again next week, Rowley is confident he can finish the job.

“Historically it’s been an incredibly Labour constituency. It used to elect Labour MPs with 10,000, 20,000 majorities, time after time after time. But you can really see over the past 10 or 20 years as I’ve grown up here, a change. People are more open to alternatives; there’s just a new way of thinking coming through, and I think this election is one opportunity where people will demonstrate that what they may have done historically, they’re not necessarily going to do this time,” he says.

Closed pits

Rowley’s father is a milkman, both his grandfathers were coalminers and his aunt was Arthur Scargill’s secretary at the National Union of Mineworkers. But the last pits closed in the early 1990s, and towns like Dromfield are now home to commuters who work in Sheffield, Derby or Manchester.

The first member of his family to go straight from school to university, Rowley believes his background is a help when it comes to persuading lifelong Labour voters to change sides.

“On the doorsteps, we’re seeing people who said they’ve voted Labour all their lives, or perhaps have stopped voting, who are telling us they like what Theresa May is doing and they’re considering voting Conservative for the first time. And that’s a huge change in the time I’ve been involved in politics,” he says.

“There’s an element that people feel that the Labour Party has moved away from them, particularly after Blair. Brown, Miliband and definitely Corbyn just don’t represent the values that we have around here, and therefore they’ve voted for them less and less over time.”

And there’s Brexit. Last year, North East Derbyshire voted by 64 per cent to 36 per cent to leave the EU, joining a majority of Labour-held constituencies that backed Brexit. Rowley saw frustration towards the EU building up in the area for years before the referendum as voters became disillusioned with the direction of the European project and wanted greater national sovereignty.

Although there are few immigrants in the constituency, voters want Westminster to control the numbers coming into Britain and they don’t like the European Court of Justice (ECJ) influencing British law.

But Rowley says the people he meets on the doorstep are realistic about the country’s future outside the EU.

Sovereign state

“They believe that Britain will be better as an independent sovereign state that hopefully will thrive in an international arena. But people recognise that it won’t be all plain sailing, and that’s why I think the reception Theresa May is getting in this area demonstrates that they want strong, stable and secure leadership to take them through this period of change,” he says.

Although some of those Rowley canvassed in Dronfield asked why the country needed another election so soon, most appeared to accept May’s message that she needs a bigger mandate ahead of the Brexit talks. One middle-aged man wearing paint-spattered overalls said she needed the voters’ backing to get the job done. “I think Theresa May should get the mandate to do what she said she will do. I certainly don’t want Jeremy Corbyn. Who would? I mean, I’m a working man,” he said.

Corbyn said he would refuse to play by the rules of a system that was rigged in favour of the rich and powerful

The Labour leader launched his campaign in London this week with a passionate pitch that sought to frame the election as a battle between the establishment and the people. Portraying himself as an outsider, he said he would refuse to play by the rules of a system that was rigged in favour of the rich and powerful.

Corbyn’s speech went down well with London activists and won praise in the media, but Rowley says the Labour leader’s brand does not go down well in the East Midlands.

“People don’t really understand the arguments he’s making. I don’t think they find him credible and they don’t see him as a prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn has an issue in these areas because they just don’t believe he will do what he says, and they think he’s weak,” he says.

If Theresa May’s gamble on an early general election is to pay off with a substantially bigger Conservative majority, she must win dozens of Labour seats in England. One poll this week put the Conservatives at 48 per cent, twice Labour’s share of 24 per cent, and a recent analysis by Electoral Calculus pointed to a Conservative majority of more than 100.

Electoral system

Peter Mandelson, who masterminded Labour’s election victories under Tony Blair, warns that Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system could make May’s task more difficult than it appears. Even on a low share of the vote, Labour could hold on to the vast majority of its 229 seats at Westminster.

Ukip’s fortunes have faded since the referendum, as pro-Brexit voters put their faith in May to secure a good deal from Brussels but the Liberal Democrats are on a roll, winning support from hardcore Remainers in other parties.

“Ironically, the better the Liberal Democrats do and the more votes they take from the Conservatives, the harder it will be for the Conservatives to take seats off us.

“So the Labour Party could do badly but because the vote against us in Labour-held seats would be split different ways between the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip, each of them will have difficulty in crossing the threshold to take seats away from us,” Mandelson says.

One of Labour’s most outspoken critics of Corbyn, Mandelson acknowledges that the leader is not the party’s only problem. But he argues that Corbyn’s presence at the top of the ticket prevents Labour from overcoming its other difficulties.

“Jeremy Corbyn is a problem in two senses. One: as an individual his polling numbers are very low. But also, his leadership makes it difficult for us to solve other policy problems.

“If you take Europe, for example, a skilful leader would devise a position on Europe that enabled us to differentiate ourselves from the government and win public support amongst soft Leave voters. He is not showing that skill to bring the party together behind a unified position,” he says.

Mandelson refuses to predict the result for Labour but he insists that, since Corbyn and his allies are in charge of the campaign, they will own the outcome. If the party fares as badly as the polls predict, it will have to take a different direction.

“It has to find a new leader who is modern, forward-looking, capable of generating broad support for the party in the country and capable of preparing us for the election after. But we’ve needed that sort of leader for a long time,” he says.

May claims that she will carry more authority in Brussels with a bigger mandate

May is determined to frame the election as a vote of confidence in her to deliver Brexit, claiming that she will carry more authority in Brussels with a bigger mandate.

Whip hand

But Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, believes the election may have a limited impact on the course of the negotiations.

“I think it will strengthen her hand domestically. She says it’s to strengthen her hand with the EU. It doesn’t make any difference to the EU, because the EU has the whip hand. The EU is in a strong position, and Britain is in a weak position, and the fact that she has a strong majority behind her doesn’t really change the fundamentals of the power relationship between the EU and the UK,” he says.

“But she’s stronger vis-a-vis the lefty Tories and Labour and the SNP who might want to push her towards a very soft Brexit. And she’s stronger vis-a-vis the very right-wing Eurosceptic Tories who want to push her to as hard a Brexit as possible, to stop her compromising on the money and the ECJ and migration rules.”

Until now, May has worked harder to keep hardline Brexiteers in her party on board than on tending to her left flank, but Grant suggests that both sides could present problems as the negotiations get under way.

“I think looking forward to the parliamentary vote in the autumn 2018 on the provisional deal, which she’s promised . . . If for any reason the economy has turned down, and public opinion is shifting against Brexit, she could be in trouble.

“Just 20 pro-European Tories rebelling on the terms of the deal could be enough to make her worry about her majority. She would be dependent in such circumstances on the goodwill of the Tory right wing for defeating the Tory left wing and the pro-Europeans,” he says.

Transitional arrangements

The election will also buy the prime minister time, so that when article 50 negotiations end, she will have three years before the next election. Grant says that May is now persuaded of the need for transitional arrangements which could mean that some EU rules and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice continue to apply to Britain for a few years.

He thinks hardline Brexiteers on the Conservative back benches also accept that there will be a transitional period and, although they don’t like it, they have concluded that there is nothing they can do about it. He believes May’s biggest challenge may come not from within Westminster but from outside.

“She’s very scared of the Daily Mail. British politicians are really scared of the Daily Mail to a quite extraordinary degree. She’s never yet gone against the Daily Mail but she’ll have to go against them if she wants to get a deal on Brexit. She’ll have to accept a role for the ECJ in the transition and payments into the budget for some period,” he says.

“So I think she may have to defeat the Daily Mail or rather resist them, and that makes her a bit nervous. So I think the election will strengthen her hand there.”

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