British Prime Minister Theresa May’s apparent change of heart and resulting decision to call an early election has been approved by a two/thirds majority, but what is her intent? To, as per the conventional wisdom, gain a greater mandate for Brexit so she can bargain from a position of strength, or is it to betray Brexit?
A June General Election now would not be a normal one. Like the Peers v the People Election of 1910 it will be predominantly about a single issue, namely, Brexit. Indeed, it could reasonably be portrayed as a proxy for re-running the EU Referendum.
There is a considerable psychological difference between voting in a referendum with a clear cut yes or no decision for the voter to make and a General Election, which is about choosing a people to make decisions on a multiplicity of subjects for several years. Many of those who voted to Leave the EU are not natural Tory voters, especially those working-class Labour voters who did much to win the referendum. Those voters may not be anything like as willing to vote for a Tory government as they were to vote for Brexit.
Motivation to vote will also be important. It is arguable that the remainers will tend to be more strongly committed to vote than Brexiteers simply because they were the referendum losers and consequently will be without any feeling of complacency. They will see this as an occasion to vent their anger and frustration. Brexiteers may be more inclined to think that the Brexit job is, if not done, is at least on a track from which it cannot be derailed and be less inclined to vote, especially if they are the people who are not natural Conservatives.
Remainer voters will also be energised by the fact that May has said repeatedly that she would not attempt to call an early General Election. Some leave voters may also feel uneasy about this and be persuaded not to vote on 8 June.
Finally, there is sheer voter fatigue. British voters have had a General Election in 2015, the EU referendum in 2016 and face local elections. Scottish voters had the independence referendum in 2014 and Northern Ireland had devolved elections in March 2017. Getting voters out for elections where voters are voting for parties have been in decline since the 1950s. It is probable that the turnout of a June General Election will be significantly below the turnout for the EU referendum which saw a turnout of 72%. If the turnout was significantly below this the remainers will use it to cast aspersions on May’s claim that she had a mandate from the British people.
All of this adds up to a need for all those who want to see Brexit completed to be both committed to the coming election and to think forward beyond it. If, as seems most likely, Theresa May comes back from the election with a substantial majority that does not mean Brexiteers can relax. A large majority might allow May to push Brexit through but it will also allow her to be dishonest. It should never be forgotten that she is a remainer and most of her cabinet and Parliamentary Party are remainers. They would in their heart of hearts like to have something far less than Brexit. Already there have been disturbing signs of May’s intentions to sabotage the vote to leave. For example, in the prime areas for Brexit of immigration and the Single Market, Home Secretary Amber Rudd says immigration may not drop significantly after Brexit, while the supposedly rock solid Brexiteer David Davis suggested in December that the UK might pay a fee to the EU to retain access to the Single Market.
The watchword for Brexiteers must be as ever eternal vigilance. Start counting the spoons.
Time will tell, perhaps, whether May is betraying the British people the way Trump has betrayed reactionaries.