On 18 April 2017, Theresa May announced her intention to hold a snap UK general election on 8 June 2017.
The announcement came as something of a surprise. As recently as last month, Downing Street had expressed its opposition to an early election. However, consistently poor polling by the Labour Party, as well as the expectation of a difficult negotiation process ahead, appears to have changed the Prime Minister’s calculus.
This flash analysis takes an initial look at the rationale behind Theresa May’s decision to hold a general election, as well as its possible impact on the UK and the negotiations with the EU.
Why hold an early election?
Recent polls show the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to be in consistent decline. A YouGov poll conducted on 12-13 April gave the Conservatives a 21-point lead over the Labour party. An earlier poll on 11 April gave Theresa May a 37 point lead over Jeremy Corbyn in a head-to-head poll.
Labour’s diminishing popularity is likely to have been the decisive factor in the timing of this morning’s announcement, but Prime Minister May will also hope to use the election to settle a number of domestic issues.
The overarching concern will be ensuring internal unity during the withdrawal negotiations, and limiting the strength of domestic opposition to what could prove to be a divisive withdrawal agreement.
In this context, it is worth noting that both houses of the UK Parliament must still ratify the UK’s withdrawal deal in early 2019. The last time Parliamentary approval was sought for the UK’s EU withdrawal was in February, when concerns over a hard Brexit meant that achieving agreement between the two Houses was far from straightforward. This could become even more complicated two years from now when the exact terms of exit are known.
In addition, had the next general election proceeded in the planned timeframe of May 2020, it would have run the risk of becoming a referendum on the Government’s performance in the withdrawal negotiations. In this light, settling internal divisions in the UK ahead of the negotiations is clearly the preferred approach.
One final part of the equation for Prime Minister May will be shoring up her own authority as Prime Minister. The Brexit referendum and David Cameron’s resignation may have propelled Mrs. May to power, but her leadership has never been subject to a popular vote. A decisive victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, would consolidate her leadership of both party and country ahead of what could prove to be a difficult withdrawal.
What effect will this have on the UK’s internal politics?
Prime Minister May will hope that the election will result in a stronger domestic mandate ahead of the negotiations, but this remains to be seen.
An unambiguously pro-EU Labour party could possibly have gained traction with the large percentage of the population that voted Remain. However, the party is in a difficult position, having seen significant Leave votes in many of its traditional strongholds in June 2016. It must also be noted that Mr. Corbyn’s own ambivalence towards the European Union has been a feature of his tenure as leader.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, will reasonably hope to recoup some of the losses suffered in the 2015 elections. Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, has steered the party towards a moderate, pro-EU approach, favouring continued Single Market membership, free movement of EU citizens and close ties with the Union. The platform has already achieved success in by-elections, and the party will look to exploit the pro-EU sentiment among disenchanted young voters in particular. Private Conservative party polling this year found that the Conservatives would likely lose most of the 27 Liberal Democrat seats they won in 2015, including all of the seats which went blue in south London.
Of the devolved governments, Northern Ireland remains preoccupied with its internal deadlock over the future of the Executive. A further trip to the polls will be unwelcome, but may not create any great surprises. Meanwhile, in Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon has requested a second independence referendum, the election results may prove particularly interesting. The SNP’s majority is unlikely to be threatened, but the election may prove to be a gauge of public opinion towards Ms Sturgeon’s new independence platform.
Will a general election affect the Brexit negotiations?
The negotiations with the EU will not begin until June 2017 at the earliest. As such, a general election on 8 June is very unlikely to directly impact on the talks. It is expected that the UK will still leave the EU in the two-year timeframe suggested.
However, a strong showing in the general election would give Theresa May a much stronger hand domestically, and this could impact on the composition of her cabinet, and perhaps even on the tone and outcome of the negotiations.
From the Irish perspective, today’s announcement has no immediate impact. Nonetheless, Ireland has a significant stake in the terms of the UK’s exit, and developments in the UK’s internal politics will be watched closely. In particular, any softening of the UK Government position in future would be a welcome development.
As a consequence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, Theresa May cannot call for an election directly. As a result, she will have to bring a motion in the House of Commons tomorrow, 19 April. The motion will require a two-thirds majority vote to pass, which is likely to be secured.