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Britain votes…again: three crucial questions

Last month, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that Britain would hold a general election on 8 June. The election raises three crucial questions.

First, why did the Prime Minister call an election now? Under British law, she could have remained in office without facing the voters until 2020 and, in fact, had promised on multiple occasions that she would not call early elections.

Second, since calling an early election requires a two-thirds vote in Parliament, why did the opposition, which could easily have blocked new elections, overwhelmingly support them?

Third, who should British voters back on 8 June?

Prime Minister May’s Conservative Party has a working majority of 17 seats in Parliament, more than enough to enact her legislative agenda. May’s argument in favor of calling a general election is that a new—and, possibly stronger—mandate will give her greater credibility in negotiations with EU governments, and help secure a better Brexit deal for the UK. A more cynical reading of her motivation is that an increased majority will solidify her leadership within the Conservative Party and make it harder for small factions within the party to derail her plans.

Since Brexit negotiations are supposed to be concluded within two years of triggering Article 50, May also claims that sticking to the old electoral schedule would involve wrapping up Brexit discussions very close to an election and would weaken the UK’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the EU. Holding an election this year means that the next general election will not take place until 2022.

Of course, the Prime Minister’s strategy carries risks. May’s predecessor David Cameron proposed the Brexit referendum in the hope that a victory for the Remain side would strengthen his position within his own party. This miscalculation set Britain on a course out of the EU and led to his resignation as Prime Minister.

Portrait of British Prime Minister Theresa May by Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. OGL v.3 via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of British Prime Minister Theresa May by Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. OGL v.3 via Wikimedia Commons.

An increased Conservative majority is not a foregone conclusion. British voters do not seem happy about being called to the polls for a third time in three years, particularly in light of May’s repeated promise not to call an early election. Additionally, Chancellor of the Exchequer Phillip Hammond’s recent indication that the Conservatives would drop their promise not to raise taxes may weaken Conservative support in the election.

It is difficult to understand why the Labour Party agreed to early elections. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is personally unpopular with the voters. His leadership has been so disastrous that several front bench colleagues have left the party leadership and a number of back benchers have decided not to stand for re-election. Polls suggest that Labour could lose nearly one quarter of its seats in Parliament in the upcoming election. Labour’s overwhelming support for an early election against such odds is puzzling.

There does not seem to be a huge potential upside for the third largest party in Parliament, the Scottish Nationalist Party, since they already hold 54 of the 59 Scottish seats in Parliament. That said, two successive electoral sweeps in Scotland within two years will surely bolster SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

The party that has the most to gain from early elections is the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Following the 2010 election, the Lib-Dems held the balance of power in Parliament and entered the government as the Conservatives’ junior coalition partner. Seen by their core supporters as having sold out to the budget-cutting Tories, they were virtually wiped out in the 2015 general election, losing more than 80% of their seats.

The Liberal Democrats contend that the Brexit referendum was a vote for a “…departure but not for a destination” and argue that before any plan to leave the EU is finalized, it should be put to the voters. Negotiations with the EU over the terms and conditions of the UK’s departure are likely to highlight the high price Britain will pay for Brexit. Once the cost becomes clear, British voters may well want one last chance to reverse course.

The choice facing Britain is stark. It should be clear by now that there is no inexpensive or easy way to leave the EU. So whom should the British voters back? The Tories will almost certainly lead to a hard—and painful—Brexit. Labour’s leader is too incompetent to run Britain anywhere but into the ground. For those with Bregret, the Liberal Democrats are Britain’s best hope.

Featured image credit: The famous black door of Number 10 Downing Street, London by Number 10. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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