This morning the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election for Thursday 8th June 2017.
Under current UK legislation, general elections are held every five years with the next one scheduled to take place in 2020. However, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, an election can be called earlier if two thirds of Members of Parliament vote for an earlier poll. The Prime Minister indicated that she would be putting a motion before Parliament tomorrow. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a statement soon after the announcement welcoming the election as an opportunity to “offer the country an effective alternative” to Conservative rule. Therefore it looks likely that the move will be supported by the Official Opposition, the Labour Party. The scene therefore looks set for a June contest.
The Prime Minister stated in her surprise announcement that the election would allow the Government to strengthen its parliamentary majority to permit it to carry out Brexit. Resistance from opposition parties she asserted threatened to undermine the Brexit process. She stated that “Division in Westminster will damage our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause uncertainty and instability to the country.” She said she was therefore seeking an increased majority.
Whilst that is the ostensible purpose for the proposed election, this latest announcement will again give rise to greater uncertainty for the UK Business Community already trying to navigate their way through the Brexit maze. In addition, there are many reasons why the Prime Minister may have needed to call a general election now.
There has been considerable worry among senior officials and leaders of the EU 27 that the Government’s current term of office which ends in 2020 would not give the negotiating parties enough time to secure a Brexit deal. A deal with the EU is likely to take far longer than the two year negotiation period set out in Article 50. Not seeking a new mandate from the country now would have risked the deadline for a future poll falling very close to the end of the most delicate stage of the Brexit negotiations.
In addition, and arguably more importantly, it allows the Prime Minister to seek endorsement of her own personal vision of Brexit. In doing so, this contest will allow her to sidestep or even overturn some of the more contentious commitments made by hard line politicians in the acrimonious EU referendum in June last year, drawing a line under some of their wild assertions.
Having now “tested the waters”, she also knows that there will be the need to make significant compromises to seal a deal with Europe and some of those are likely to be unpopular with the electorate. Therefore she feels she needs a strong direct mandate from the people to carry this off.
Nevertheless this general election is unlike any other in recent times. Whilst the projection of a sizeable Conservative majority looks likely, the uncertainty caused by the ghosts of the EU referendum of a year ago hangs heavily over this poll.
So, to paraphrase leading historian A. J. P. Taylor, whilst the result of the election may seem obvious, nothing in Brexit Britain is inevitable until it happens.