Theresa May’s announcement on Tuesday that she will seek a snap general election in June came a shock, particularly since she had regularly insisted that no such election would be necessary and that the current parliament would continue, as planned, until the spring of 2020. In her announcement, she claimed that the UK now needed the “certainty, stability and strong leadership” that her Government could provide, and that while the country was coming together, opposition in Parliament would obstruct her Government’s delivery of the Brexit referendum result.
May clearly anticipates that an election in June will allow her Conservative Party to substantially increase its majority in the Parliament – a prospect that the polls corroborate. A general election victory this year can be expected to crush the UK’s weak opposition Labour Party, perhaps terminally, while at the same time allowing May to claim that she has a mandate for the ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘global Britain’ policies she has pursued so far. Neither of these, however, were the subject of last year’s referendum, which simply asked, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” An election this year also means that May will no longer face an election in 2020. That vote would, assuming the current Brexit timetable holds, have taken place a little more than a year after the UK’s exit from the EU – a time at which the adverse effects of Brexit may be surfacing, and perhaps also a time during which the UK would still be bound by transitional arrangements—such as continued freedom of movement or the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice—that would be deeply unpopular with the Eurosceptic wing of her party.
May’s message to the EU is also clear – the Brexit process is irreversible and its course is set. Dissenting voices in the UK will be squeezed out. There will be no back door channels for EU negotiators to appeal to. Brexit means hard Brexit.
This is, then, a cynical and opportunistic move. Despite May’s claims, the country is not coming together. The percentage of the population who believe that the UK was wrong to vote to leave the EU has stayed largely constant. To accuse those who seek to represent these views of “political gameplaying” panders shabbily to the view that to question the Brexit process—or even to wish to see it properly scrutinised—is to stand against democracy itself. That just 52% of voters voted to leave in an advisory referendum with a turnout of only 72% is hardly tantamount to the claim that the “people have spoken” promoted by the right-wing press. The continuing divisiveness of this issue is evident in the Daily Mail’s provocation to “Crush the Saboteurs”, a hateful front page greeting May’s announcement that belongs in the gutter alongside the Mail’s infamous “Enemies of the People”.
Are there security and defence implications? Perhaps the key difference an early election might make is in Scotland. Brexit is likely to be so dominant as to make the June election almost a single-issue campaign, at least in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The weak and divided opposition parties will have neither the time nor, apparently, the drive to challenge the Conservatives on other issues. In Scotland, however, the issue of Scottish independence will inevitably also play a role. The Conservative Party’s supremacy south of the border is highly unlikely to be matched in Scotland, where it currently holds only one seat of 59 in Westminster and 31 of 129 in Holyrood. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon is already campaigning for a second independence referendum on the grounds that Scotland is being dragged out of the EU against its will (62% of Scottish voters voted to remain). The impact of an early UK election and the consequential inevitability of a ‘hard Brexit’ is not, however, obvious – there are pro-independence Scottish leave voters just as there are pro-Union Scottish remainers. It may be, however, that the prospect of a generation of Conservative Party dominance may be enough to nudge Scotland in a more pro-independence direction. Of course, this assumes that Theresa May permits a referendum – after all, an unscheduled poll during the Brexit negotiations would be destabilising, would it not?