Last June the voters of Britain turned out in large numbers to give their verdict on Brexit. This June they will be asked to repeat the exercise, except that this time around the referendum will be called a general election. What has happened in between these two events? Not a lot, except that the Entitled Ones, by throwing money at their Brexit defeat, have tried to frustrate the popular will in the courts.
Otherwise, the Prime Minister has chosen to submit Britain to the masochistic exercise of running the gauntlet of Article 50 for two debilitating years. She has written a letter to EU president Donald Tusk and… er… that’s about it. Theresa May is so proud of having hit the ground running on Brexit in this hell-for-leather fashion that she is looking for a reward from the electorate in the shape of a landslide in favour of her overwhelmingly pro-Remain parliamentary party.
Labour is in meltdown, the Lib Dems will only make a minor comeback, UKIP, bereft of Farage, is dead – so runs the hubristic Tory narrative – and a Conservative landslide beckons. Does anybody get a feeling of déjà-vu from all this? A memory of the days when Dave bestrode Chipping Norton like a colossus, went to Brussels to negotiate miniscule concessions, came back without so much as a bendy banana and called a referendum he was certain to win?
Britain does not need or want this general election. It will be a referendum on Brexit, but without the clear-cut clarity of a Yes/No vote. There will be so many cross-winds, contrary outcomes now that tribal party politics are no more, unforeseen consequences, that Theresa May has given too many hostages to fortune. In the weeks between now and 8 June the perception that she is pursuing blatant party advantage could significantly alienate the electorate.
The hard-sell claim, evident in her speech calling the election, is that it will purge Westminster of Remain MPs. Sounds good. But what exactly is the mechanism through which that will happen? How are pro-Remain Conservative MPs going to be evicted from their seats amid a projected Tory landslide? How much deselection has been going on in the shires? Not a lot, one suspects. So, the new Cavalier Parliament, Brexit’s chambre introuvable, will be drawn from new entrants, Conservatives ousting Labour incumbents, some of whom may have been pro-Brexit, if only in response to constituents’ pressure.
This irresponsible gamble, inviting a chaotic outcome from an enraged and uniquely unpredictable electorate, could produce a hung parliament – unlikely but conceivable in post-tribal Britain – that would make Brexit negotiations virtually impossible. On an issue so towering as Brexit, no prime minister with a modest but working majority has the right to take risks for naked party advantage.
Suppose, too, that the Downing Street scenario comes to pass and the Conservatives win a landslide victory, which is by no means unlikely. For reasons mentioned above, a large proportion of the parliamentary contingent would still be pro-Remain. That means continuation of the civil war that has engulfed the Tory Party since the Maastricht Treaty and earlier. That, in turn, predicates internal party trading over Brexit for the sake of unity. It was that necessity that caused David Cameron to call the EU referendum.
The majority of Tory MPs, close to business lobbyists and closer still to their Tuscan villas, have Remain sympathies even when publicly supporting Brexit. They want Brexit, but in a diluted form that is rejected by the public. Already the ground has been tested with recent murmurings about retaining freedom of movement even after Brexit, cautiously managing the public’s expectations with silky warnings that immigration may not fall significantly post-Brexit. Don’t expect dramatic change.
If there is not dramatic change on immigration, these disconnected politicians should understand there will be dramatic change in the political system, at the insistence of the betrayed public. Inside the Westminster bubble, even post-referendum, it is staggering how detached the political class is from public concerns. Theresa May claims she needs a larger majority to secure Brexit. But the danger is that a landslide majority would embolden the establishment Tories to renege on commitments and deliver a “soft” Brexit, i.e. no real Brexit at all.
It is undesirable for any party to have a large majority during the Brexit negotiations: our weasel legislators need to be kept in a precarious situation, to be policed by the electorate into delivering pure Brexit. This snap election is in reality a bid by the Conservative Party to emancipate itself from the control of the electorate for the next five years.
Brexit will now be exposed to the shifting tides of “Events, dear boy”, of the still formidable resources of the Remain faction that dominates the establishment, the incalculable cross-currents of post-tribal party politics, the potential hysteria of over-reactive markets and the alarums and excursions that the EU oligarchs will undoubtedly contrive during the election campaign. In politics, the bird in the hand is a prize to be cherished. Theresa May has everything she needs to deliver Brexit: this electoral adventure is all about her imposing her image as a new Margaret Thatcher on the Conservative Party.
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There are too many imponderables. Is Labour truly dead? Which is the template – Copeland (as the Tories hope) or Stoke, which demonstrated how deeply embedded Labour still is in parts of Britain? For the Liberal Democrats the template is surely Richmond. In their role as standard bearers for the intransigent Remain last-ditchers they are bound to be beneficiaries in prosperous Remain seats. Thanks a lot, Theresa, for bringing more Cleggie clones into Westminster, just when the Lib Dem bacillus was approaching extinction.
The assumption that UKIP is dead is the most misguided notion of all. UKIP is not a political party, but a movement. It only needs to function as an anti-establishment facility, an amenity whereby voters can put their cross against the name of an unknown candidate sporting the £ sign emblem on the ballot paper, to secure Brexit and spite the elites.
Regardless of whether Mrs May gets her landslide majority (in itself a bad outcome) or not, this is an unnecessary, dangerous and destabilizing general election. The reality is that Theresa May has given Remainers their desired second referendum.