José Ruiz Vicioso
José Ruiz Vicioso. MA History of Political Thought, University of Exeter. Intern FAES 2011
Theresa May announced yesterday her intention to call an early election in June 8, less than a year after the Brexit referendum and after denying on several occasions her intention of moving the polls forward. Although unexpected, this decision has a logic which must be analyzed in its various dimensions.
In international terms, May is looking for a consolidation of her legitimacy ad extra, based in an own democratic support, something that she does not have at the moment. We shall not forget that her government results from Cameron’s resignation –not from popular vote- and that her narrow majority does not always ensure parliamentary support, making necessary negotiations of policy within her own parliamentary group and with other parties. May wants to project an image of unity around her to strengthen her position in the negotiations of Brexit. These negotiations were formally open on March 29 and will continue for two years which are decisive for the future of the United Kingdom.
The likely victory of May should then be interpreted as a “second ballot” or reconfirmation of Brexit. By this way, there would be no doubt that “Brexit means Brexit”, and that “there’s no turning back”, to use two celebrated quotes from the premier.
In national terms, the early election responds to an urge by May to seize a solid and lasting political hegemony. That is, May wants to base her position abroad on internal stability. The fact is that the Conservatives do not have today a consistent opposition, either on the left or on the right, and they have decided to take advantage from that circumstance. Labour has lost a large part of its political capacity with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a very questioned leader seen as unable to appeal to a majority of voters. His electoral perspectives are, in fact, quite poor. The UK Independence Party is going through a severe crisis. In the post-referendum and post-Farage context it is inevitable to question the survival of a party which has already achieved its founding goal and which is not able to establish a new leadership which prevents internal war. Thus, it is not surprising that May’s strategy regarding UKIP has been so obvious: both her interpretation of the result of the referendum –what some people have called hard Brexit– and the nationalist rhetoric of her messages have been directed to capitalize the UKIP vote for the Conservatives. These openly seek to crush UKIP, which would ensure them a comfortable majority. The Liberal-Democrats, while not recovered yet from their result in the last election, have certain improvement possibilities if they manage to attract the open and educated, urban middle classes (former New Labour included) which voted to remain in the EU.
Under these circumstances, the real challenge which May faces with the election is in Scotland. The SNP of Nicola Sturgeon will pose this vote as a new plebiscite which will legitimize them to claim for the independence, since a majority of Scotland voted to stay in the Union and reject to leave it “against their will”. If the nationalists sweep again like in 2015, it is difficult to see how the Government will address an ever deeper territorial problem which represents the main split of the country.
Finally, as an internal matter of the party, the election will help May and her team to take over the effective control of the organization. The conservative party came out of the referendum completely torn apart, as Tim Shipman has described in All out war. In that enormous task of reunification May must start by reinforcing her own leadership, and nothing better for that goal than electoral success.
Cameron got lost by giving up prudence, which is the conservative political principle par excellence. We will see if May has not risked too much and wins –as it is likely to happen– her bet of an early election.