Fresh on the heels of Turkey’s referendum, British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have taken a leaf out of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy and has suddenly decided to go to the country for more legislative room to negotiate Brexit on her own terms, without much hindrance or opposition. But will this work? Or has she awakened a sleeping and demoralised ‘Remain Giant’ that had all but given up on the inevitability of so-called hard Brexit?
Up until recently, the Prime Minister argued strenuously that there was no need to legitimise her position, which she assumed without an explicit vote by the electorate after the resignation of David Cameron. But apparently, after a ponderous reflection over the long Easter weekend, she decided it was right after all to seek a mandate for her programme and interpretation of Brexit.
She had insisted that “Brexit meant Brexit” without explaining exactly what the 52 percent of the electorate who voted to leave the European Union had in mind. She resisted calls to allow Parliament a vote on Article 50 until she was ordered to do so by the Supreme Court. She refused to issue a White Paper setting out her government’s strategy on Brexit but relented after much pressure. The prospect of using so-called Henry VIII powers to alter EU laws being repatriated back to the UK has alarmed many observers. More generally, her hardline stance on immigration (which she believes was the main message of the referendum), withdrawal from the Single Market and even the Customs Union, have made many people more nervous about the uncertain future that might emerge after Britain leaves the EU.
Despite losing a few legal challenges and temporary setbacks in the House of Lords, it was assumed no one could stand in her way. Until today. But her stated reason for calling an early general election, like Henry II, of wanting to be rid of troublesome opposition parties in Scotland and the mainland who are making life difficult, may well cause the electorate to deny her the freehand she seeks.
Because the truth is, despite appearances, 48 percent of those who voted in the last referendum wanted to remain in the European Union. Many of these ‘Remainers’, including a large proportion of younger voters had given up and were resigned to Britain’s exit. Now the Prime Minister has given them a second chance to pronounce on her Brexit negotiating posture. And it may be too tempting for those opposed to a hard Brexit not to use the opportunity to deny her precisely what she is demanding.
The opinion polls show she is 20 points ahead of the opposition Labour Party which has been ravaged by internecine conflicts since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. His lacklustre parliamentary performance has not inspired much confidence among his base or the country. And Mrs. May is gambling that opposition disarray will strengthen her meagre majority and give her the mandate to go for the rupture that many of her hardcore backbench Brexiteers have craved for years.
Unlike many Labour MPs, Corbyn himself is not an EU enthusiast and is at best a reluctant Remainer. In that regard he is not too dissimilar to many of Labour’s core supporters outside the large metropolitan cities and in the industrial heartlands of the Northeast. So he leads a parliamentary party that wants to oppose Mrs. May but a rank-and-file membership whose sentiments are with her. How does he square that? It’s an impossible task. The best argument Corbyn could offer is moderation and to make the forthcoming election a referendum on Mrs. May’s hard Brexit.
The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon whose call for a second referendum on Scottish independence did not garner as much support as she imagined, will also use this election to shore up her party’s position as a check on the extremism of the Prime Minister who could split the United Kingdom and cause irreparable damage to the Union.
If the Prime Minister’s pole position in the polls begins to slide, as it must, she could moderate her stance so as not to frighten off middle-of-the-road voters but would then incur the wrath of her hardline Brexiteer base and risk losing them to the more extreme UK Independence Party (UKIP) who have described Mrs May’s decision as a sign of weakness.
This election may not turn out as Mrs. May had intended. After all, the British electorate were finely divided on the issue of leaving the EU and it may be time for a redress. While immigration dominated the referendum campaign, the reality of leaving has suddenly dawned and with that, justifiable concerns about the consequences for trade, jobs, investment, and employment rights.
British voters may not wish to reverse the decision they made on June 23rd 2016; but they want a more cordial and amicable separation with visiting rights and the preservation of some mutual obligations. The unintended consequence of Mrs. May’s call for an early general election may be to reinforce the opposition to her hard Brexit stance, leave her without significantly more legislative room and force her to negotiate compromises she has thus far been unwilling to make.
Delhi, 18th April 2017