High stakes politics in the UK

Nick Sitter

Nick Sitter on the upcoming UK election: "Theresa May's strength at home could be her weakness in the EU"

OPINION: Nick Sitter on the UK and the EU

UK Prime Minister Theresa May surprised most politicians and pundits by calling an election for 8 June 2017.

She needed support from two-thirds of the 650 representatives in the House of Commons in order call an early election, in place of the one due in 2020. 522 MP voted for the early election, and only 13 against. The Brits will be voting for the third time in three years: the 7 May 2015 election, the Brexit referendum on 23 June of last year, and now a new election on 8 June.

Favourable political winds

The Prime Minister called an election in a very favourable political climate. Under the leadership of leftist Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has fallen far behind in the polls: while 45% support the Conservatives, only 26% say they will vote Labour.

If this trend continues, the Tories can expect a majority of more than 100 in the Commons. The Liberal Democrats – the only party still in favour of EU membership – is polling at 11%, whereas the anti-EU UK Independence Party has lost more than one-third of its support, and fell to only 9%.

Looking at domestic UK politics, the Conservatives are right to be satisfied with their leader's political strategy, even if this is a complete reversal from May's categorical statements since she took over as party leader and Prime Minister following the referendum last year. Then, she promised to lead the Government until the 2020 election.

Her official explanation is that it has gradually become clear that she cannot negotiate a British exit from the EU without better control of her own Parliament. May argues that the other parties and the House of Lords are acting too irresponsibly.

Opportunity to break Labour

In practice, this is a unique opportunity to break Labour. Not only will the Tories probably secure an extraordinarily large electoral victory, but there is a reasonable chance of Labour slipping further into chaos. Corbyn secured the leadership through grassroots mobilisation, by enlisting new, radical party members. If the party sacks him after a humiliating electoral defeat, it could be difficult for a new leader to run the party. And if Corbyn continues as party leader, the more moderate forces are likely to break out and form a new centre-left party.

However, calling elections and referendums is risky. Things can go wrong in a number of ways. This will be a Brexit election. It may give the Prime Minister the mandate she needs to negotiate the UK's future relationship with the EU, but it also involves risks.

Early elections are risky business

The Tories are likely to lose some pro-EU voters to the Liberal Democrats, which have promised a new referendum. If UKIP can simultaneously deliver its message that May cannot be trusted with implementing Brexit, the campaign could be tougher in both 'Leave' and 'Remain' constituencies. However, electoral geography and the concentration of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU means that the loss of Remain voters is unlikely to lead to a defeat for the Conservatives: and UKIP has fallen apart.

Nevertheless, a week is a long time in politics. After the Brexit vote last year, one should be careful not to rely too much on polls. And even if everything goes as planned for Theresa May on 8 June, her optimism concerning the negotiations in Brussels could turn out to be misplaced.

Stronger in negotiations?

May asserts that a strong and stable government with a large majority in the Commons will have a stronger position at the negotiating table. Domestically, this makes sense: if the party attains a majority of 100 or more, the chances of the Parliament rejecting the result of the negotiations are minimal.

Although the clock is ticking – May has two years as of when she, under the EU's Article 50, formally announced that the UK was leaving the organisation, 29 March – a major electoral victory will dramatically increase the likelihood of the negotiations being concluded in time and accepted at home.

What can she achieve in Brussels?

The question is: what she can achieve in Brussels?

The UK Government interprets the negotiations with the EU as more or less a zero-sum game, where both sides will negotiate vigorously and where threats of negative consequences is an important instrument.

The problem is that, in reality, the EU rarely acts like this. The Greek Minister of Finance and game theory professor Yanis Varoufakis bitterly lamented the fact that the EU did not negotiate the way one 'rationally' should.

Norway's experience with the EEA points in the same direction. The EU countries can act in surprising union when they negotiate with an individual third country. But they are also amenable to compromises. This can result in unexpected institutional solutions. Norway has the EEA, the Swedes are not part of the Eurozone (although they did commit to this), and the Danes have a number of opt-outs from the EU regime and regulations. All three have achieved this through negotiations with the EU at times when relatively weak governments could invoke the importance of seeking compromises that are both compatible with the EU system and satisfy Eurosceptics and opposition parties at home.

The lesson for the British Prime Minister could actually be that a government that is weaker at home, will have a better position vis-à-vis the negotiation partners in Brussels. A new and stronger May government will have no one else to put the blame on, neither in Brussels nor at home in London.


The article was published as an opinion article in the online newspaper ABC Nyheter on 3 May 2017 under the vignette "Voices". Read article on abcnyheter.no (Norwegian)

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Published 10. May 2017

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