May’s high-stakes gamble

Prime minister risks an ungovernable Britain

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a general election on 8 June is a perilous combination of low risk and high stakes. According to opinion polls, May’s Conservative government will win a more comfortable majority than the current margin of 330 members of parliament out of 650. But if things go wrong, the result may be a hung parliament where no party wins an absolute majority. Britain would be ungovernable as it begins negotiations to exit the European Union. At the same time, Scottish nationalists would probably seek a second independence referendum, and Northern Ireland might be forced to consider its role in the union.

The possibility that this move may backfire is so frightening that the prime minister’s decision, though bold at first glance, comes across as reckless gambling with the nation’s future. Explaining why she wants the country to go to the polls (when not so long ago she was vehemently opposed to the idea), May referred to Brexit with the slogan, ‘The country is coming together but Westminster is not.’ This is an odd position to adopt: the June 2016 referendum saw 52% of the turnout supporting Brexit against 48% Remain, while the vast majority of MPs in the elected House of Commons voted for the bill granting May permission to begin exit proceedings. MPs have insisted only on a say in how negotiations are managed and parliament’s right to speak on the outcome.

One interpretation is that May wishes to free herself of hard-core Brexiteers, who account for 50-60 MPs. A higher majority would give May more leeway in negotiations with the EU27. But if this is her intention, May’s action amounts to putting her party ahead of the country. It seems that her need to keep the Conservatives united is more important than working with the current parliament to secure a sensible Brexit result with large support across parties.

A substantially larger majority will be necessary to justify calling an election. If the Conservatives win, for example, only an additional 10 seats in the House of Commons, this might look like a failure. This would especially be true if the number of hard-core Brexiteers stays the same or increases.

Things could feasibly go wrong. As Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke noted, ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ Many politicians have learned the hard way how true this proverb is.

Two unknowns could haunt May. A large lead in opinion polls and disarray in the opposition Labour party might tempt some of her supporters to stay at home on election day – they might think, ‘Victory is ours, so why bother to vote?’ The electorate may likewise suffer ‘voter fatigue’ following a rash of polls in quick succession – elections in 2014 to the European Parliament; the Scottish independence referendum in the same year; the 2015 general election; the Brexit referendum; and local elections in May.

Low voter turnout would almost certainly hurt the Conservatives more than other parties. Those who voted to remain in the EU could see the general election as an occasion to flaunt their dissatisfaction. The British electoral system means that a large majority of votes does not necessarily convert into a large parliamentary majority. In this context, it appears unwise to have ruled out a second referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Giving that assurance might have damped temptations among Remainers to use the general election to protest against the government.

A Conservative majority in the House of Commons after 8 June looks overwhelmingly probable. Yet it does not guarantee May a sufficiently stronger position to justify the possible worst case scenario: an ungovernable Britain.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry.

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