Make no mistake: The recently announced U.K. general election in June will not be solely about the U.K. leaving the European Union (EU). Other issues matter.
Similar, I suspect, to most Britons, I choked on my tea and toast when Prime Minister Theresa May announced that there will be a general election on June 8, especially because she had ruled one out many times since becoming prime minister in July 2016. Few saw this coming.
A Time of Uncertainty
Ostensibly, May has called the election in order to make it easier to conduct upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU. She has been operating with an overall majority of 17 Members of Parliament (MPs), but some of them are staunch Remainers, while the unelected House of Lords has a large anti-Brexit majority who can frustrate and delay legislation they don’t like. A thumping majority in the House of Commons should give May the support she evidently feels she needs to strengthen her hand.
It would also give her the added legitimacy of being an electorate-approved prime minister, rather than one who had been nodded through unopposed by Tory MPs. Former deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg writes in the Evening Standard, “There is something deeply un-British about a hitherto unelected PM who now wants to use an election to undo the basic function of opposition in our democracy. … [I]t is naïve to assume, as the Prime Minister has suggested, that a thumping Tory majority on June 8 will automatically make the rest of the EU more pliable in the Brexit talks.”
Maybe, maybe not. But it will very probably make May’s task on the homefront easier. For example, the House of Lords will be wary of trying to frustrate Brexit-related legislation if the prime minister has a big Commons majority courtesy of the general election vote.
Will she get one? Early polls indicate she probably will. But they also suggest that issues other than Brexit may well sway voters from her true path. For example, on April 22, a ComRes-Sunday Mirror poll on voting intentions put the Conservatives (Tories) at 50%; the main opposition party, Labour, at 25%; and the Liberal Democrats at 11%. On the same day, a Survation-The Mail on Sunday survey put the Conservatives at 40%, Labour at 29%, and Liberal Democrats at 11%. Given that the polls got the 2015 general election and the 2016 EU referendum wrong, they should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Also, the nature of the U.K. electoral system, in which the number of constituencies won by parties determines who becomes part of the government and prime minister, means local results can vary widely from the national norm. Take the Liberal Democrats. Currently, they have nine MPs and are firmly anti-Brexit. They will throw the kitchen sink at constituencies that have pro-leave Tory MPs but a pro-remain electorate. I think this will help them win about 40 seats.
There is also talk of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish Nationalist parties agreeing pre-election to stand down for candidates in some seats to allow one of them to unseat an incumbent Tory, even creating a post-election alliance to form a government that would, basically, backtrack on Brexit. In my opinion, this will take some doing, not least because the electorate may regard such moves as stunts best avoided.
The outlook for Labour seems bleak, thanks largely to its likeable but hopelessly compromised leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Although an MP since the dawn of time, he has never held ministerial office, is defined by years of opposition to various policies since the 1970s, and is seen as wonky on key issues such as defense and the economy.
When asked his view of the U.K.’s nuclear deterrent on an April 23 political show, he basically said he wouldn’t sanction use of it—thus nullifying deterrence. He also said that, in a letter of last resort from the prime minister to nuclear submarine commanders, he would tell them to obey orders when given. And there was I thinking it would be “We surrender” in Russian, Chinese, and Arabic.
And yet, Labour may gain traction with policies that appeal to some sections of the electorate; for example, on tax, wealth inequality, workers’ rights, the health service, and national investment. The ComRes poll put the National Health Service (the U.K.’s secular sacred cow) as the No. 1 issue for voters, followed by Brexit, the economy, immigration, and national security.
Corbyn’s team is formulating policies that may well include raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, hiking the minimum wage to £10 (about $13) per hour, and capping the pay of some company bosses. Labour will also be strong on maintaining inflation-proof annual rises to pensioners—the age group that always turns out in elections.
It’s all going to play out soon. The parties will publish their election manifestos in the next 2 weeks, elements of which may well sway the electorate. Corbyn has already promised four new public holidays—on St. David’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, St. George’s Day, and St. Andrew’s Day—to give the U.K. worker 12 paid public holidays a year.
One thing it doesn’t look like we’re getting is a live TV debate involving all of the main party leaders. May says she won’t play ball, and there’s talk that she’ll be replaced by an empty chair. In my view, the empty chair would still win.
I expect an overall Tory majority—maybe 40 seats or so—to come out of the general election, but I’d be surprised if there’s a 90-seat landslide.