By Yossi Mekelberg*
If anything was surprising about British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for snap elections, it was that it took her so long to make this decision. She was never too convincing in her promises not to do so before the 2020 due date. She almost protested too much.
As appalling and disappointing as it is to witness, once again, a politician who bluntly breaks a promise, one needs to bear in mind that May is first and foremost a politician, and without this crude thirst for power she would have never reached her position in the first place.
I am writing this with sad resignation rather than endorsement. In a very bruising contest within her party, following the Brexit referendum and the resignation of David Cameron, May proved her knack for a political sucker-punch on her way to 10 Downing Street. May has made the transition from a seeming “Remain” supporter to “Brexit is Brexit” with little hesitation — some may say with no compunction — because that is where political power rests.
As with most other modern politicians, it is in May’s DNA to be led by public opinion polls, whether acting according to them serves the country best or not. Asking her to ignore a more-than 20-point lead in the polls, which translates into increasing the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons from 17 to at least 140 MPs, is like asking her to abandon her most basic political instincts. She wants to win, and win big.
In the sorry state of the current British political system, May’s most threatening opposition comes from within her own party rather than from outside it. The main opposition, the Labour Party, is in a state of disarray led by the lackluster and inept Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is unpopular even among his own MPs, while other parties are too small to mount a real challenge. North of the border in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party is expected to repeat its success of 2015, especially as it campaigns on the ticket of Scottish independence as a vehicle for remaining part of the EU.
It would probably baffle any decent human being how a prime minister could throw her country into an election frenzy, by unashamedly blaming the opposition and the upper chamber, the House of Lords, for doing their job of overseeing the government’s activity on issues which are at the heart of the country’s future. In May’s audacity she questions the legitimacy of the other parties to oppose a future agreement with the EU, as if it is not their duty to scrutinize any future agreement with it.
Truth be told, in the process of triggering Article 50, May’s government got its way almost to the letter. Unless she was, all of a sudden, inspired by Erdogan and the Turkish referendum, disgruntled with having to deal with the opposition, she had a perfect working majority to march on leading the country, including Brexit, until 2020.
If polls are anything to go by, May will retain her position, but reinvigorated and more powerful. The financial markets have also had their say and the pound surged to its highest level this year immediately after the announcement of the elections. It reflects a view that a Conservative government with a solid majority would negotiate Brexit from a much stronger position, using Parliament as no more than a rubber stamp.
Though constitutionally the premiership of May was never in question, there is always a lingering doubt of legitimacy when the prime minister reaches power without leading the party in elections. It is probably a doubt that also was lingering in her mind, which a massive lead in the polls helped to resolve.
Assuming she comes out on top in the elections, May will acquire not only a sizable breathing space from the other opposition parties, but will also be able to assert herself within her own party. She can then reshuffle her Cabinet as a leader in her own right with a mandate from the people.
Waiting for 2020 would have been politically too risky for May, considering a final agreement on Brexit should be finalized by 2019. It would have been too close to the following year’s elections as set by law. This is especially the case if negotiations prove disastrously unsuccessful, or if the agreement reached is significantly inferior to Britain’s current terms of membership in the EU.
May has proved thus far that she is far from being an inspiring leader and is mainly a rather alarming right-wing rhetorician with no great vision. She substitutes the lack of vision by diligently plowing along a very conservative agenda on issues such as immigration and education. Yet she is in charge of the biggest challenge the UK has faced for decades and at one point or another she will have to reveal her cards as to whether she is a soft or a hard Brexiter.
In her about-turn regarding the timing of the elections she proved to be a calculated political operator, but this will not necessarily suffice in facing EU negotiators who resent Britain’s decision to leave the EU, with some even harboring hopes that it will not happen at all. For them, as for everyone else, May’s nine months in office and decision to call elections leave open the question of whether behind an opportunistic politician also hides a shrewd stateswoman.
*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.