May takes election gamble to strengthen hand on Brexit
Analysis: Political case for early election is compelling – but it also carries risks for the PM
Theresa May blamed opposition attempts to thwart Brexit for what she claimed was a reluctant decision to call for an early general election on June 8th. But an enhanced Conservative majority could also leave her less dependent on right-wingers in her own party as she navigates two years of negotiations with the European Union.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, May needs a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to call an election before 2020. She will introduce a parliamentary motion on Wednesday, confident that Labour will not wish to be seen to shy away from the challenge of facing the electorate.
Even if the motion fails, May can still engineer an early election by contriving a vote of no confidence in her own government, although that process would be more lengthy as the law requires parliament to attempt to form an alternative government before triggering an election.
The political case for an early election is compelling, with recent polls putting the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour, which will almost certainly face the voters on June 8th with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Some Conservatives, particularly in southwest England, may be vulnerable to the resurgent Liberal Democrats. But the implosion of Ukip and May’s presentation of herself as the keeper of the Brexit flame means that she will have less to fear from the right.
Vote of confidence
The prime minister used her announcement in Downing Street to frame the election as a vote of confidence in her management of Brexit and an attempt to strengthen her hand in the negotiations. But a bigger majority could also offer her greater room for manoeuvre in those talks, particularly over sensitive issues such as the nature and duration of any transitional arrangements after Britain leaves the EU.
In recent weeks, May has signalled a shift in emphasis, making clear that she expects free movement of people, budget payments to the EU and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice to continue beyond March 2019. Until now, hardline Brexiteers on her backbenches have been supportive of her approach but that support is likely to crumble once hard compromises become necessary.
Although the polls are heavily in the prime minister’s favour, she will struggle to increase her majority substantially in an electoral landscape where Scotland as well as Northern Ireland has effectively left the UK-wide political party system. And election campaigns seldom proceed according to plan, especially in a political environment as novel and unpredictable as that of post-Brexit Britain.