Does Theresa May have anything to lose in snap UK election?


Mark Dawson says anything less than a crushing majority could backfire. 

Announcements like this normally come with some warning. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown spent months in 2007 dithering about whether to call a general election to gain a personal mandate before calling the whole thing off. His credibility never recovered. Theresa May is not going to make the same mistake. Her opponents, however, will make her eat her words: repeatedly in the last year she has insisted on the mantra of no ‘opportunistic’ early elections. She was focused on the job at hand: delivering a Brexit deal that the UK could live with, both economically and politically. Today, those are hollow words.

No Prime Minister has ever seen such a clear chance to crush the opposition. Labour is languishing some 25 points behind May’s Conservatives in the polls, led by an individual whose approval rating among UK voters is below that of Donald Trump in the US[1]. The risk of pushing any Brexit deal through the current parliament is clear. With a majority of less than 10, the PM was always likely to be squeezed on both sides. Concessions to her European partners (on matters such as outstanding budget contributions) could leave her hostage to the Conservative euro-sceptic right; a hard line on other matters (such as rights for EU citizens living in Britain) could finally galvanise a fragmented opposition against her government. With a landslide majority in the bag, the PM can now use an enhanced version of the trick she has been deploying with great effect since the referendum: that the people have spoken. Few opponents will be willing to defy a Brexit strategy seemingly endorsed in a comprehensive election victory.

Yet, precisely the ease with which she is expected to win presents the PM with her greatest challenge. Facing a dispirited opposition, anything other than a crushing majority is likely to be seen as a personal defeat. For a leader seeking an election win to enhance her personal credibility, a result like that of the 2015 election, i.e. the narrow Conservative win, would be blamed on the PM personally. For all her advantages, the Theresa May is not a natural campaigner. She is seen by the public as competent, but lacking in empathy.[2] In the big electoral battles of recent years, notably the Brexit campaign, she has taken a back-seat. On the other side of the aisle, electoral rules will ensure that her opponent, Jeremy Corbyn, is given a louder and fairer hearing than at any other point in his two-year leadership of Labour. For the PM, the odds of victory are high, but so is the chance for disappointment.

Finally, there remains the question of how this election will alter the two existential issues facing the UK in 2017: on the one hand, Britain’s relationship with the EU; on the other, the disintegration of the UK itself. In the former case, the PM is likely to use the Brexit issue to solidify her support. Be prepared for the notion (reminiscent of populist leaders the world over) that a vote for her will ‘strengthen Britain’s hand’ in Brexit negotiations, portraying her opponents as compromising the unity of the national interest. In the latter case, we are likely to see a repeat of 2015, when David Cameron effectively used English fears of the Scottish National Party as a card against the Labour opposition.

In both cases, these lines are likely to bear some political, but little strategic, fruit. The notion that the PM’s Brexit hand will be strengthened is rather reminiscent of a similar claim made by the Greek PM when facing off against the Eurogroup in a 2015 referendum. Then, as now, the strategy back-fired: the rest of the EU has little interest in domestic British politics when compared with the hard bargaining of international trade (and the need to keep the EU itself unified). The more the PM plays the national unity card domestically, the more the EU is likely to play it too (hardening resistance to compromise with the UK).

Similarly in the Scottish case, an early general election simply plays into the hands of the PM’s opponents north of the border. The campaign in Scotland will be seen through the lens of Scottish, not UK, politics, with proponents of independence using the campaign to repeat the demand for a second vote on Scottish independence. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, will use the campaign to seek a personal mandate for a second referendum, portraying her Scottish opponents as poodles of Theresa May. Nicola Sturgeon was the big victor of the 2015 campaign, establishing an unprecedented near monopoly over Scottish representation at Westminster. Few would bet against her emerging victorious from this campaign too.

With this announcement, Theresa May has shocked British politics (just at a period when the shock of Brexit was beginning to wear off). The reverberations of the shock may yet knock her own political plans off course.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-donald-trump-poll-theresa-may-approval-rating-gorton-survey-gfk-a7653576.html

[2] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/04/11/public-see-theresa-may-new-iron-lady-will-it-last/

More about Mark Dawson

  • Mark Dawson , Professor of European Law and Governance