Steve Richards: Whatever happens in the election, Brexit spells trouble for Theresa May

Written by Steve Richards on 19 April 2017 in Opinion

The PM has made two claims to justify her snap general election and both of them are nonsense.

Theresa May has called an early election largely on the single issue of Brexit. Her unexpected move triggers a single overwhelming question. How will Brexit change as a result of the election?

May has made two claims to justify her move. She suggests that opposition parties in the current parliament cannot be trusted to deliver Brexit. As the Prime Minister puts it in a bizarre proposition, the country is united and yet the Commons is not. As a second justification May also insists that victory would strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiation that will follow.

Both claims are nonsense. Most Labour MPs in this parliament voted to trigger Article 50 and continue to support Brexit on the basis, like May, that voters backed leaving the EU in the referendum. Indeed the Commons has been more united behind Brexit than the country. Many Remain voters despair at the way an advisory referendum has led to overwhelming parliamentary backing for Brexit. The Parliamentary Labour party is the least formidable and intimidating in decades.

A more feasible justification for an early campaign is that May feels the need for a bigger majority to prevent hardline Euro-sceptics making her life a form of political hell. John Major suffered turmoil over the Maastricht Treaty when he had a slightly bigger majority that she has now. She wants to avoid such hell. But a bigger majority, even a landslide victory, is not necessarily a buttress for a Conservative Prime Minister in trouble over Europe.

Margaret Thatcher fell in November 1990 having led her party to a triumphant landslide win three years earlier. She fell partly over Europe. If Major had led with a bigger majority after 1992 I suspect his MPs would still have made his life a nightmare. He had won them an unexpected election in 1992. They showed him no gratitude and his authority over them was not enhanced. The issue of Europe mattered more to his MPs than any other consideration. Whatever happens in the election there is trouble ahead for May in the House of Commons over the terms, timings and cost of Brexit.

In terms of the Brexit negotiation a victory for May in the election changes nothing. The issues remain precisely the same. After May triggered Article 50 she handed control to the rest of the EU to determine the terms of the UK’s departure. An election victory does not change the obstacles in front of her. How to retain as much access as possible to the single market? How much will the cost of departure be? Where are the alternative trade deals and what form will they take? How to maintain the supply of cheap labour while controlling levels of immigration?

All the energy- sapping questions are not wiped out by a general election. Similarly the SNP will probably sweep the board again in Scotland. May will claim a Tory victory in the UK election gives her a mandate to block a referendum on independence. Nicola Sturgeon will argue that she has a new mandate in Scotland to press for the referendum. Nothing changes.
The last time a prime minister called an early election was in February 1974. Edward Heath went to the country over the single issue of ‘Who governs?’ in an attempt to win his battle with the miners and other unions.  He lost, at least in terms of seats. One of the reasons he failed to win was that it was far from clear how Heath would prevail with the unions after a general election victory. All the obstacles were still in place. High oil prices still gave the miners economic muscularity.  Heath’s incomes policy was not working. A victory would not have solved very much.
Heath faced a more formidable opponent in Harold Wilson and was not as far ahead in the polls when he called the election as May is now. Nonetheless what happened then shows the risk of calling an early election on a single issue. Heath could have ruled for another eighteen months. May has exposed the farce of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, calling an election three years earlier than scheduled.
There is a wider parallel with that era and now. Since 2010 we have had a hung parliament, a general election in 2015 and now another one in 2017 and two destabilising referendums. They are all symptoms of a troubled UK. In the mid 1970s there were two elections in a single year, a referendum on Europe the following year and later one on devolution in Scotland. Again they were symptoms of a disturbed country.
Assuming May wins she will return to Number Ten to discover the UK remains troubled. The 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU will not be appeased. The EU Commission will not have changed its tough negotiating terms. The terms of Brexit will still have to secure the backing of each EU member and the European parliament.
May’s decision to call the election was sensational theatre from a supposedly cautious leader. The move generates further drama. George Osborne is leaving the Commons. Labour’s Alan Johnson is going too. Afterwards there may well be at least one leadership contest. But it was last year’s referendum that changed the course of British history. Even if Theresa May wins big, Brexit will remain hazardous for the country and for her, as it was before she decided to call an election three years earlier than she needed to.


Steve Richards’ unscripted talks on modern prime ministers, Leadership Reflections, are available on BBC iplayer.


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