UK election: Theresa May seeks ‘hard’ Brexit mandate

Polling gaps between the Tories and Labour have narrowed substantially

 

Campaigning in the British general election has become more sharply focused since the two major parties published their manifestos last week. The Labour Party presented a radical programme of greater taxation of the wealthy and business, more investment in jobs and welfare, and renationalisation. The Conservatives’ new emphasis on community and social protection only highlighted their discordant plan to restrict state support for sick older people living at home. So much so that prime minister Theresa May was forced into an embarrassing retreat on the latter yesterday. Polling gaps between Labour and the Tories have narrowed substantially.

May sought yesterday to switch the emphasis back to Brexit where she believes she is on firmer ground in competitive party terms. Her electoral policy is based on winning Labour seats that voted to leave the EU in last year’s referendum and on folding the United Kingdom Independence Party vote back into her party. The Conservative manifesto reinforces that message by its commitment to greater social solidarity. Alongside that goes a stronger commitment to leave the single market and the customs union, greater controls to reduce immigration and more scope to negotiate international trade deals.

By thus privileging issues of sovereignty and political identity over economic interdependence, May is seeking a mandate for a harder Brexit than many expected when she called this election. A common interpretation of this is that a big majority would allow her to outmanoeuvre the most hardline Brexiteers and make whatever compromises are needed on financial and transitional deals, continuing payments to the EU in return for market access and liability to accept its judicial processes. This account is difficult to square with the political direction she has chosen, which will strengthen the case for a harder outcome and brings her closer to its political and media supporters. She values party unity and is seeking a realignment that would copperfasten Conservative domination in the medium to long term.

Confronted with these political realities, the Labour Party’s radical domestic programme has a popular appeal despite overwhelming media disbelief in its sustainability and in Jeremy Corbyn’s credibility as party leader and potential prime minister. If the narrowing polls foretell a closer than expected result, he is likely to survive and May may be in a much less commanding position than many have assumed. The campaign dynamics over the next two and a half weeks to polling will determine these outcomes.

Observers in Ireland and elsewhere must prepare for them politically, knowing they will determine how the Brexit negotiations are likely to proceed. The domestic and European issues have become so closely entangled in the campaign that it will be even more difficult to unravel them after it.

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