Sneak attack

Thursday, May 4 2017, 12:14, analysis by dhr Prashant Sabharwal

Analyse van Prashant Sabharwal, promovendus, aangesloten bij het Montesquieu Instituut in Maastricht

Theresa May’s surprise call for the general election may very well change… absolutely nothing

De uitslag van de aankomende Britse parlementsverkiezingen gaat waarschijnlijk niets veranderen aan het politieke landschap rondom de Brexit. Naar verwachting zullen May en haar Conservatieve Partij - dankzij het 'First Past the Post' principe - een grote overwinning behalen op Labour, de grootste oppositiepartij.

Een breder binnenlands mandaat zou de onderhandelingspositie van May weliswaar versterken, maar het feit blijft dat zij zal moeten kiezen tussen een ‘harde’ of ‘zachte’ uittreding uit de EU. Dat er nu al een slechte sfeer heerst in de onderlinge gesprekken voorspelt niet veel goeds voor het verloop van de daadwerkelijke onderhandelingen die na de verkiezingen van 8 juni van start zullen gaan.

With the last masses having been celebrated and the final bells having been tolled, it appeared that the tranquility of the Easter festivities would make way for the metropolitan sounds of Westminster, as political leaders across party lines went back to work last Tuesday.

However, unbeknownst to most, one particular politician had been working overtime to spring a coup many had stopped to even consider: When Prime Minister Theresa May (Conservative) emerged from 10 Downing Street, behind a hastily placed lectern and in front of a somewhat confounded press, she ended all certainties about the coming political season: “I have just chaired a meeting of the Cabinet, where we agreed that the Government should call a general election, to be held on June 8”.

The Prime Minister’s words amounted to a sneak attack on the opposition Labour Party, which after much internecine warfare, appears to be hopelessly behind the Conservative Party in the opinion polls. Depending on which polling institute you asked, as of 26 April, Labour is behind the Conservatives by 23% or even 25%. Even if the most pessimistic opinion poll for the Tories (showing Labour having closed the gap and “only” being 11-17% behind the Conservatives) were to bear fruit, Prime Minister May is likely to celebrate a landslide victory unseen since Tony Blair and his New Labour swept into power in the 1997 general elections. Unless the opinion polls turn out to be stunningly inaccurate, the United Kingdom is looking at some form of Conservative-led government for another 5 years. It was probably a look at those very opinion polls that triggered the Prime Minister’s own change of heart.

Besides the fundamentals of British politics (fascinating in itself), the election call reveals a number of other considerations to be borne in mind:

  • 1. 
    The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 did not pass the test: The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 research briefing) was introduced by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government to end the problem of prime ministers examining their popularity in the country and prematurely dissolving the House of Commons to gain an overwhelming majority at the most convenient juncture of their tenures. In order to dissolve the Commons, a prime minister requires a 2/3 majority of all seats in the House of Commons (including vacant seats). This time around, Mrs. May easily managed to effectively circumvent the supposed barrier the Act was to represent – and secured a decisive majority. Bafflingly, the Labour Party consented to the parliamentary election – even though it is likely to fall victim to an unprecedented defeat, if the current polling numbers hold up.
  • 2. 
    Brexit is all around: In her speech announcing the proposed dissolution of Parliament, Prime Minister May also underlined that her desire to call an early election was driven by her need to secure a strong negotiation position in the upcoming withdrawal talks with the European Union. During her announcement, the Prime Minister asserted that “in recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the deal we reach with the European Union” that “the Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill”, and that “the Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain's membership of the European Union”, whilst “unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way”.

What is curious about this line of argument is the fact that the Prime Minister has not been defeated a single time during any of the votes in the House of Commons during her tenure. She was able to rally support for her European policy at all junctures, including the passage of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, which authorized May to activate Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. However, from a majority management perspective, calling a general election makes sense. The Conservative majority in the Commons, at the time of dissolution, stood at 12 seats.

Given the dismal state of the Opposition, an increase to 75-100 seats currently looks plausible. It stands to reason that the Prime Minister would indeed get greater room for manoeuvre – both domestically and internationally. It would become more difficult for organized groups of committed Brexiteers to hold the government hostage during the course of the UK’s negotiations with the EU. That said, such strategic space would inevitably depend on the structure of the new Conservative Party group in the House of Commons. If previously observed dynamics within the Conservatives offer any guide, then the 2017 class of Conservative MPs may very well contain a strong contingent of new MPs who will reject major compromises on ECJ jurisdiction and freedom of movement issues on principle.

  • 3. 
    First Past the Post will distort the resultonce more: There is a legitimate and strong case to be made for a majoritarian electoral system placing its emphasis on the formation of a strong, stable and viable government – instead of perfectly reflecting every single vote cast in the seats distributed to each party group. However, following Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States with a decisive minority of the popular vote, the UK general election may very well provide the sequel in this saga.

With the centre-left opposition parties – Labour, the Greens, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats – split down the middle and opposing one another in key constituencies, the Conservative Party (no longer facing the threat of a diminished UK Independence Party) is likely to end up the beneficiary of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system traditionally used in the United Kingdom.

The same system that delivered decisive majorities to the Conservative Party and Labour in the past – and with major distortions: in 1997, Labour under Tony Blair won its first victory, securing 418/650 seats in the House of Commons (64.3%) with 43.2%. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher managed to win 339/650 (52.1%) seats with 43.9%. Meanwhile, in 2015, David Cameron won an absolute majority of 330/650 seats (50.8%) with 36.9% of the popular vote. If the current opinion poll numbers hold up, the Conservatives could win a heavily distorted majority.

  • 4. 
    The European Union is not impressed: Meanwhile, the Brexit clock ticks down mercilessly. According to Article 50 TEU, an agreement must be have been concluded within two years after the notification of withdrawal (which occurred on 29 March 2017). On 30 March 2019, the UK will leave the European Union. Consequently, every minute and hour is precious for the UK to make its case in the negotiations. But with the country now being engaged in an election campaign, the country loses an entire month in which little progress is likely to be made.

This will likely be compounded by the transition in the French presidency (regardless of who actually wins) in a few days’ time and the German federal elections in September. Even so, the atmosphere surrounding the negotiations has already been rendered quite difficult: over the weekend, the remaining EU27 agreed on no-nonsense, no-compromise negotiation guidelines. The guidelines essentially clarify that prior to negotiating any future free trade deal, the EU and the UK need to deal with the concrete details of the country’s withdrawal. In contrast, May had wanted to have both sets of negotiations in parallel to one another. Further, Commission circles appear to be genuinely alarmed about the apparently unrealistic mindset with which May is approaching the negotiations – including a complete refusal to even countenance settling its remaining debts with the EU.

In this context, the Commission now appears to deem a complete failure of the Brexit negotiations to be quite realistic. This also places warnings by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, namely about “illusions” held by certain quarters in the UK in a fresh light.

Of course, the Prime Minister immediately denied reports of a difficult meeting: But, in all seriousness, was she going to concede that the meeting had gone terribly? In the middle of an election campaign entirely premised on her ability to manage Brexit? How about “No”? It is quite evident, ever since the referendum campaign, that those stridently advocating the UK’s departure from the EU make a wildly diverging set of assumptions about withdrawal than the EU27. The following passage from a recent European Parliament report is symptomatic for the Continental bewilderment at Britain’s negotiating posture: “Because of the patchy expertise in London on EU matters, there is a real risk that the British will overplay their hand in the forthcoming negotiations”.

These will be tough negotiations at best, and at worst could result in a complete disaster for the United Kingdom in economic, commercial and diplomatic terms. In an atmosphere in which the hard right in the Conservative Party holds sway, High Court judges are defamed as “enemies of the people” by highly partisan media publications and pressure is brought to bear on civil servants to tailor their expertise to the requirements of the political leadership, it is doubtful whether Britain can adopt a negotiating posture capable of maintaining the goodwill of its EU27 partners – and fostering the strong foundation of trust needed to forge a wide-ranging free trade deal. Instead of following a strategy based on measured rationality and intelligent give-and-take, the UK Government appears to live in a self-reinforcing bubble in which Eurosceptics tell one another that Germany will never permit a “bad deal” for Britain because of its car industry – despite the fact that both the Chancellor and her challenger have said that they will remain tough on Brexit. Or that no deal is somehow better than a bad deal. Once election season is over, the Prime Minister needs to get down to business – and chart a realistic course for the negotiations. Britain is just one nation negotiating with a bloc of 440 million citizens. Much of its economic prosperity has been facilitated by its access to the Single Market and lower trade barriers. At the current rate, however, the UK is about to give this advantage away.

  • 5. 
    Uncertainty remains: This general election is unlikely to resolve the uncertainty around Brexit. The best explanation for Mrs May’s call to the polling booth is the desire to inoculate herself against the effects of (failed/difficult) Brexit negotiations. Even an enhanced majority will find it difficult to change the ground conditions: Mrs May needs to make a strategic decision – and admittedly a difficult one: Does she want to continue on a “hard Brexit” course – especially now that the EU27 is seriously willing to let that possibility come to pass? Or does she stand up to the hard core of her party to opt for the “softer” option of a Norway /EEA model or the intermediate Swiss variant (a complex network of bilateral, sectoral agreements with the EU – but also with limited tradeoffs on immigration and cohesion funds)? By the way, even if Labour were to miraculously win the general election, its leader Jeremy Corbyn has been studiously silent on Brexit – also because he is committed to a Eurosceptic position himself and only lukewarmly campaigned for Remain in the national referendum.

Recently, Tony Blair announced his return to frontline politics – as he found out to his chagrin, winning an election isn’t the end of your problems as Prime Minister. Sometimes, it can be just the very beginning of them.

Prashant Sabharwal