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Why Britain’s prime minister just called a new election — and how it could backfire

It all hinges on how British voters really feel about Brexit.

Theresa May Announces A General Election
UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

On Tuesday morning, Americans woke up to some confusing news: The United Kingdom is having a general election on June 8 — even though the next one wasn’t supposed to happen until 2020.

"I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead is to hold this election," Prime Minister Theresa May said in a televised statement. “Division in [Parliament] will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit."

Under British law, all May needs to call a snap election is a two-thirds vote in the British Parliament, which she appears certain to get. The bigger question is why she would want to do this. For months, she’s been insisting she wouldn’t hold a snap election. And indeed, why would you want to hold an early election when you’re already prime minister and your Conservative Party holds over 100 more seats in Parliament than your nearest rival? Why take the risk?

In a word: Brexit, the UK’s risky planned departure from the European Union.

This election will be a kind of second referendum on Brexit, one in which May is betting she can improve on her majority. But this gamble is just that — a gamble. The UK public remains deeply split on Brexit: An April YouGov poll found that 46 percent of Britons thought the country made the right decision, 42 percent thought it made the wrong one, and a shockingly high 11 percent remained unsure. British EU supporters will campaign hard to turn out pro-EU voters and convince undecideds, with a goal of preventing May from taking the hard line in negotiations with the EU that she currently wants.

The Tories are unlikely to outright lose control of government, and the Labour opposition is likely to remain in shambles owing to the unpopularity of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But May could nonetheless be dealt a major blow if there is a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, a smaller party that opposes Brexit.

Still, the prime minister has good reason to like her odds. The chart below, from the poll aggregator Britain Elects, shows that May’s Tories, in blue, have a massive and seemingly growing lead. Labour (in red) is in what seems like terminal decline — currently down 16 points to the Tories. (Given that it lost the last election by a 6.5-point margin, that would lead to a significant decline in parliamentary seats.) And the Liberal Democrats, in yellow, haven’t surged enough to make up the gap.

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

“[May’s lead] is enormous, and we know that Corbyn has been weak for ages — it’s a consistent pattern,” Pippa Norris, a Harvard political scientist who studies voting in Western democracies, says. “On the other hand, lots can happen in six weeks.”

This election is all about Brexit

The Conservatives control an outright majority in Parliament already, so May should theoretically be in a strong position. The problem, though, is that the Conservatives aren’t united on Brexit.

The last UK election was held in May 2015, roughly a year before the Brexit vote. At the time, the Conservative Party was led by David Cameron, a vocal opponent of leaving the EU. The June 2016 Brexit referendum fight split the Tories, pitting Cameron against the euroskeptics in his own party. After the shocking vote to leave the EU, Cameron resigned. May, who had been a cabinet minister in Cameron’s government, took over from him with the party’s internal division still unhealed.

The point of this snap election is to unite her party — to grow the ranks of anti-EU Conservatives in Parliament and cement her legitimacy as the UK’s representative during Brexit, given that she never actually won an election.

“She needs an election win to give her a mandate to lead the country, the Conservative Party and the Brexit negotiations,” Tim Oliver, a professor at the London School of Economics, explains via email. “The EU referendum result gives a mandate to leave the EU, but is not clear as to what ‘leave’ means and May needs a mandate from the people to back her interpretation of leave.”

Practically speaking, then, the stakes in this election are quite significant. The Brexit negotiations center on two issues: whether the UK will maintain its privileged access to EU markets when it’s out of the union and whether the UK will continue to allow unfettered immigration from EU countries. May’s position is that if the EU will not agree to let Britain place tight restrictions on EU immigration, she’s willing to accept EU tariffs on British goods — a dangerous stance given that about 44 percent of UK exports go to the EU. Essentially, she’s willing to risk causing a recession in order to put up new immigration restrictions, an outcome commonly referred to as “hard Brexit.”

This election will determine whether May has enough support, both from the public and from Parliament, to continue to take such a tough line. The EU negotiators will be watching closely.

“It’s not whether or not Britain has a Brexit, but what type of Brexit — that’s the most likely outcome of the general election,” Norris says. “If Conservatives do well ... that would reinforce the idea of a hard Brexit.”

Is May’s gamble smart?

Protests As The British Prime Minister Triggers Article 50
A pro-EU demonstration in London.
Carl Court/Getty Images

Given the magnitude of the Brexit issue, there’s no question that it will dominate the election. The debate will be over May’s position versus a softer, pro-EU line — one that would be willing to compromise on immigration in exchange for maintaining market access.

The problem for Labour is that its leader, left-wing firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, is a terrible messenger for the pro-EU cause.

Corbyn is a longtime euroskeptic. He opposed signing the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union as we know it. At the time, he gave a speech warning that the creation of the EU would be an “imposition of a bankers' Europe on the people of this continent [that] will endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom and in any other country." During the runup to the June 2016 Brexit referendum, Corbyn took a wishy-washy position — publicly opposing Brexit but failing to campaign hard against it. Many British politics observers think he secretly voted to leave.

This equivocal stance on the EU, combined with Corbyn’s fringe left-wing ideas and support base, have led to a collapse in Corbyn’s personal approval ratings and Labour’s poll numbers. About 62 percent of Britons see Corbyn unfavorably, according to the pollster YouGov. A 46-44 plurality of Labour voters see him negatively.

“Under the leaderships of Jeremy Corbyn Labour has gone nowhere and is in complete disarray,” Oliver says. “This election could be a disaster for them on a scale we’ve not seen for a long time.”

May’s gamble, then, is that she’ll make gains at her main opposition’s expense — capitalizing on Labour weakness to build up her own votes.

The issue, though, is that Labour isn’t the only game in town, and a third party might end up reaping the benefits of Labour’s decline. So even if May and the Tories maintain control of the premiership, as is widely expected, they could still end up being hurt by the vote.

The center-left Liberal Democrats — a moribund force in UK politics until last year — has remade itself into the main pro-EU party in the wake of Labour’s wishy-washiness under Corbyn. The Lib Dems, as they’re called, have seen their vote share rise steadily since the Brexit referendum — but their numbers aren’t high enough yet to pose a serious challenge to the Tories. It’s very possible that the Lib Dems surge in the heat of a campaign, leading to large gains at Labour’s expense while the Tories stay where they are or even roughly decline.

If that happens — and there's no guarantee it will — it would show that Britain isn’t in fact united in support of Brexit, weakening May’s negotiating stance and potentially transforming the nature of Britain’s departure from the UK entirely by forcing it to accept more permissive immigration rules and keep its economy more integrated with the rest of Europe’s.

“The risk is that this opens up rather than closes down the issue if Theresa May doesn’t get a substantial endorsement on the policies on which she stands,” Norris says. “If the Lib Dems do well, that could soften the tone of the negotiations.”

With stakes this high, and a political scene this unsettled, the next six weeks in Britain will be very, very interesting.

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