Theresa May’s opportune election decision may pay off

Bigger majority would be confidence vote in Brexit management

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn during a visit to Birmingham Carers’ Hub. Earlier Theresa May called a snap general election for June 8th. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Theresa May has blamed opposition attempts to thwart Brexit for what she claimed was a reluctant decision to call for an early general election on June 8th. Yet an enhanced Conservative majority could also give her greater room for manoeuvre within 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. Opposition parties have made clear that they will back a government motion on Wednesday to dissolve parliament on May 2nd.

The political case for an early election is compelling, with some recent polls putting the Conservatives 20 points ahead of Labour, which will almost certainly face voters on June 8th with Jeremy Corbyn as leader. An Electoral Calculus analysis last month of recent polls projected a Conservative majority of 112 seats, almost 100 more than today.

The prime minister used her announcement in Downing Street to frame the election as a vote of confidence in her management of Brexit

Some Conservatives, particularly in southwest England, may be vulnerable to the resurgent Liberal Democrats. But the implosion of Ukip and May's self-reinvention as the keeper of the Brexit flame means she will have less to fear from the right.


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 flexibility in those talks, particularly over sensitive issues such as the nature and duration of any transitional arrangements after Britain leaves the EU.

Shift in emphasis

In recent weeks May has signalled a shift in emphasis, indicating 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 could crumble once hard compromises become necessary.

British prime minister Theresa May makes a statement to the nation in Downing Street. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivias/AFP

Whitehall sources suggested on Tuesday that May's decision was influenced by the emerging timetable for Brexit negotiations, which could see substantive talks about a free trade deal with the EU postponed until after Britain leaves in March 2019.

Before Tuesday’s announcement May faced the prospect of attempting to leave the EU with a partial deal, against the background of a slim parliamentary majority, and a general election looming within months.

If she is returned to power in June with an increased majority she will not have to face voters again until 2022, by which time Britain will not only have left the EU but will perhaps see the end of its transitional arrangement in sight.

The new electoral timetable could also reduce the likelihood of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal as it eases the domestic political pressure bearing down on the prime minister in the final stages of the two-year article 50 negotiations.

Good news for Ireland

This is good news for Ireland, for which a disorderly Brexit could prove catastrophic, threatening the delicate web of bilateral and multilateral deals and exceptions the Government hopes will protect the Common Travel Area, keep the Border open, support the peace process and limit the economic impact of Brexit on Irish business.

Corbyn may not be the sole cause of his party's unpopularity but he is a monumental liability

May has presented her change of heart about an early election as a reluctant decision driven by her need for a clear mandate ahead of negotiations with the EU.

But it is also an act of political opportunism designed to seize the moment of Labour’s almost unprecedented weakness to kick her majesty’s loyal opposition while it is on the floor.

Corbyn may not be the sole cause of his party’s unpopularity but he is a monumental liability, with some polls showing that even Labour voters prefer May over him as prime minister.

By calling an election less than a year after Corbyn was reconfirmed as leader in a membership ballot, May has robbed Labour of the opportunity to ditch him before it faces the electorate.

Some Labour MPs hope that losing June’s election will bring down the curtain on the Corbyn era, but others have chosen to leave politics rather than face humiliation at the ballot box. MPs in traditional heartlands such as the northeast of England fear that Ukip will win enough votes to hand their seats to the Conservatives even if the far-right party fails to win seats itself.

“The Brexit talks are about damage limitation and the huge and lengthy challenges Theresa May faces may slowly be becoming clear in Downing Street”

Labour’s weakness

If the election in England and Wales is dominated by Brexit and Labour's weakness, in Scotland it will be a vote on a second independence referendum.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon wants to hold a referendum between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 after the shape of a Brexit deal is known but before Britain has left the EU.

May says an independence vote must wait until after the Brexit process is complete, but Sturgeon will seek to portray a victory for her Scottish National Party (SNP) in June as a popular mandate for an earlier referendum.

The SNP swept all before it in 2015, winning all but three of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. The party is unlikely to match that performance this time, but is all but certain to win a majority of Scotland’s seats.

Although the polls are heavily in the prime minister's favour, her lead could shrink once the campaign begins, so she could 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.