UK election: May in search of an elusive unity

Poll comes at a bad time for Northern Ireland

'At this moment of enormous national significance," Theresa May told the Commons yesterday, "there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division." And so the UK prime minister called a general election.

May has a Tory working majority of just 17 and no personal electoral mandate from the British public as prime minister, having been elected solely by MPs. An election in which she routs a desperately weak Labour Party – the Tories currently lead Labour by an average of 17 points – and potentially dispatches a drifting, rudderless Ukip to the political wilderness, would undoubtedlty provide her with a degree of political authority.

An election victory under May's belt could in theory strengthen her hand in dealing with the hard-right Eurosceptic rump in her parliamentary party

Presumably she believes it will also remove any doubts European partners have about her mandate in negotiations. The truth is they have little doubt about the British mandate, although much about British sanity in opting for Brexit. An election victory under May's belt could in theory strengthen her hand too in dealing with the hard-right Eurosceptic rump in her parliamentary party. It now numbers as many as 80 but could be potentially far more after the election.

But ending “division”? Dream on. It was precisely those divisions in the Conservative party which her predecessor David Cameron failed to confront which, in turn, propelled the UK into the disastrous Brexit vote. And those same divisions that May sought to paper over by co-opting the Brexit leadership into her cabinet to head the negotiations, cuckoos in the nest, biding their time. No, an election will not heal the divisions. And no matter how large the Tory majority in the Commons, May’s ability to command that majority will always be in doubt.

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Theresa May: untainted by exposure to economics or tough financial decisions, the British prime minister can pursue reduced immigration as her prime goal. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

The people will speak, but what will they have said? On the big issue of the day, Brexit and how to deal with it, the Tories will be offering candidates whose views will range across the political spectrum. But in individual constituencies, Tory voters will be given no choice. Such is the first-past-the-post voting system.

No party will want to be seen to be 'weakening' ahead of polls which might see Sinn Féin bringing nationalists level with unionists

The election also comes at a bad time for Northern Ireland, a measure, many were quick to say, of how low it and its problems are on May's agenda. There is little expectation that deadlocked talks between Sinn Féin and the DUP can make any progress ahead of the election and a deadline already extended until early May. No party will want to be seen to be "weakening" ahead of polls which might see Sinn Féin bringing nationalists level with unionists.

Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has the option to extend the talks deadline, call an Assembly election (probably to coincide with the Westminster vote), or introduce direct rule – something Taoiseach Enda Kenny told Theresa May yesterday should not be contemplated.