Damage Control: Britain Set for Tense Snap Election as Brexit Drama Escalates

UK Prime Minister Theresa May
UK Prime Minister Theresa May

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an early election for June 8th has got Britain guessing. This is highly irregular. What exactly makes May’s tenure so different from that of her predecessors, themselves being content to contest power at the usual time and usual place? Is this an act of political sincerity to rally the populace behind a common cause, or a ploy to legitimize a flailing government before popularity starts to fade in the face of renewed hardship?

The latter is more likely. There are a few reasons why. Despite what the government claims, there’s little to commend them on. The UK is hurting quite severely and, true to the best traditions of British foreign policy, it’s causing others to hurt along with it. It’s no exaggeration to say that people have literally died due to this government’s ongoing assault on the welfare state, where, to quote detractors, a policy of “conscious cruelty” has condemned some of the most vulnerable to renewed hardship.

Homelessness remains such a persistent problem that, just a few years ago, Britain attracted the attention of the United Nations precisely on its inability to house its own populace. Rather than address the issue, personal attacks on one particular UN official was the order of the day, with Conservatives preferring to dismiss the problem out of hand. To top that off, rising numbers of Britons are having trouble even affording food, with the use of emergency food banks having proliferated across the country.

The National Health Service (NHS) is also in open crisis. In addition to a policy of creeping privatisation carried over from the Blair years, the government has presided over mounting shortages of beds, staff and general inefficiency. In a particularly dramatic episode, multiple hospitals were recently left in chaos in the wake of an extensive and malicious hacking attack on NHS computers. In the aftermath it was discovered the crisis had been exacerbated by government funding cuts to cyber security. What was once the pride and joy of the British welfare state is now looking increasingly unhealthy.

Foreign affairs have also not been this government’s forte. Prime Minister May has seen Britain’s enduring and utterly opportunistic relationship with Saudi Arabia continue to blossom, with the latter’s bombardment of Yemen being no obstacle to abundant British arms sales. Israel also continues to be a prime focus for London’s diplomatic endeavours, even when Tel Aviv came close to prompting a diplomatic incident by targeting multiple members of the British Parliament for a potential defamation campaign.

As is the case with Saudi Arabia, strategic interests and long-term weapons deals seem to have prevented any hurt feelings, with Israel being a consistent customer for weapons, even to the point of British armaments being deployed by the IDF in its 2014 assault on Gaza. Ethics and self-respect clearly take second place when it comes to lucrative weapons deals. The same can be said of Bahrain, where a deplorable human rights record has not cooled relations with Britain. Indeed, along with the establishment of a new British naval base in the country, UK weapons sales to Bahrain have doubled.

“Strong and Stable Leadership”?

The above issues, as deplorable as they are, are not all there is to the decision to call for an early election. While they are no doubt a headache for a government fearful of a potential resurgence of domestic opposition, there are several motives at work here. First of all, Brexit is not going smoothly. It’s likely the Prime Minister will have noticed that people are starting to feel the strain, with the economic uncertainty prompted by last year’s referendum now manifested in very concrete ways, most evidently a rise in poverty.

Britain is not simply going to be able to walk away from the EU without consequence, and while so much still depends on negotiations with other major European powers, few can remain blind to what is happening. The country is suffering economically and the ongoing political battles with Brussels, the capital of the EU, is not instilling many with confidence.

An early election could serve the government in a number of areas. It may give them a fresh mandate for governance, one achieved while their support base is still intact and unlikely to fragment in the short-term. If the Conservatives can win in June then it may not matter how bad things get in the near future; they’ll have a renewed grip on power with ample room for maneuvers, something that might not have been the case had they waited until 2020 for the vote.

They government will also have received an effective vote of confidence when it comes to Brexit. This is important given that the Conservatives were initially caught off-guard by the success of an at times aggressive and indeed violent Euroscepticism in the 2016 referendum, with both May and then Prime Minister David Cameron being in favor of retaining EU membership. While the government seems adamant about respecting the result, it has put them in unknown waters, fighting a battle many of them would have chosen to avoid.

This matters when it comes to further talks with Brussels. Having a renewed mandate for power will prove useful in the likely event of negotiations taking a turn for the worse, permitting the Conservatives to heroically pose as defenders of Britain against the unceasing predations of Europe. Alternately, if things somehow go well, the government will be able to present itself as having delivered against all odds, snatching victory from the jaws of foreign hegemony.

Either approach will no doubt strike a chord with the support base of the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP), potentially drawing many of them into the fold of traditional Conservatism. This would help offset a loss of support elsewhere as people continue to feel the squeeze of both Brexit and ongoing policy debacles.

The Political Power of Jeremy Corbyn

Additionally, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party (LP) are more of a threat than some might think. Despite lagging in the polls, Corbyn still heads the largest political organization in the country. He’s also intensely popular with the rank and file of not only the LP, but swatches of the trade union movement, the latter still constituting a seriously powerful force when it so chooses.

Corbyn has also proven himself a competent political player, having decisively won two separate leadership contests in as many years while enduring incessant intrigue from within his own ranks. Whilst some might find the latter to be a liability, the fact that he’s been able to lead such a sizeable organisation while facing down treachery within the higher party echelons speaks volumes as to his strength of character. If Corbyn can ultimately finish off his would-be usurpers and rally the considerable number of LP loyalists, then the Prime Minister may get very worried, very fast.

To fight Corbyn now at a time of their own choosing (and after a sudden influx of hard cash) makes tactical sense for the Conservatives. Yet their window of opportunity is quite small. Corbyn isn’t backing down, and the fifth column within the LP are hardly coming across as a credible opposition. The mainstream media’s campaign of anti-Corbyn character assassination is also getting more ridiculous by the day. For May to opt for a show down with Labour now rather than later may be a sound, if underhanded, strategy.

North of the Wall: Scotland

Scotland is also cause for concern. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) is staunchly pro-Europe, having enjoyed a dramatic rise in fortunes in 2015 and coming out swinging in the face of their failed bid to win Scottish independence the year before. Much of this has, it must be said, come at the expense of the LP; Scottish Labour almost faded out altogether during the last general election, in large part due to the pro-union blunderings of Labour’s previous leader, Ed Miliband.

The SNP have been in an ideal position to pick up the pieces, in many areas replacing Scottish Labour as the party of choice for anti-conservatives. While this obviously has not been good news for the LP, it has created an additional front for the government to worry about, especially in light of renewed calls for Scottish independence from a distinctly pro-EU electorate. Theresa May’s blustering over Brexit is hardly striking a chord with such people for the simple reason that they didn’t vote for it.

An electoral victory for the government next month may thus potentially check the SNP from any further expansion. London would also gain time to consolidate itself while heading off SNP demands on a second referendum on independence, something that might just be possible if May can utilize the tactics of her predecessor in cultivating pro-union sentiment by propagating ominous scenarios of what an independent Scotland may entail. Fear and patriotism can be an effective means of statecraft. This is nothing new. It certainly worked in 2014.

On the Continent

The French have gone and complicated matters. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the new President in Paris is, unlike his nationalist would-be competitor, a supporter of the European Union. This is curious for a number of reasons. For some time it seemed that France was (and perhaps still is) suffering from the rightward shift in political fortunes also evident in the rest of Europe, the UK included.

The Front National has made its political gambits precisely on a staunch Eurosceptic (and indeed xenophobic) position, one eschewing “globalism” in favour of nationalism and support for an allegedly “forgotten” indigenous populace. Much of the rhetoric stemming from the FN has often mirrored that of Britain’s own anti-EU formations, most emphatically that of UKIP and, under Le Pen senior, some of the darker elements of the far-right. The success of the British anti-EU camp in the 2016 referendum no doubt emboldened the FN to push on with its own similar agenda, something that led them all the way to a final clash with the now victorious Emmanuel Macron in the final round for the Presidency.

The FN’s defeat in France may make things harder for the British government. It doesn’t take too much to work out that an anti-EU President in the Elysee would potentially have given London some more room for political maneuvering. How that might have turned out is open to speculation. Yet Macron has seized the day, a man who seems set on reassuring the rest of the EU (most emphatically the real powerhouse involved here, that being Germany) that he’s someone they can do business with. That most certainly will not mean giving ground when it comes to Brexit.

It is of course too early to get the measure of the “centrist” Macron. It would also be a mistake worthy of UKIP to simply assume that the EU itself is out to get Britain, in the process looking to squeeze the country for all its worth as part of the price of daring to leave. So far the general consensus on the continent is that Brexit is “punishment enough” without the French or Germans kicking us while we’re down.

It would also be an equally profound misjudgement to assume anything is going to go easily on London, or, given the disgraceful treatment of Greece, that the EU is some font of perpetual progress and benevolence. It most certainly is not. Europe has been strengthened with Macron’s ascension to the Presidency. The British will have taken note.

Impending Prospects

The future is looking increasingly hard to predict. After a shaky start where Labour continued to lag behind in the polls, a sequence of reversals began to assail the government, prompting something of a fightback from the LP. The situation is certainly tense. The next few weeks and after may yet still contain seeds of promise. Voting day isn’t all there is to political struggle. Even if Labour loses out, the government’s position is likely to worsen, something they themselves are likely aware of and are attempting to circumvent by cashing in on a sudden election. In the event of an overall (and most likely slim) Conservative victory, May will still have to weather a storm of repercussions regarding her own sorry record and an increasingly harsh Brexit. Continued opposition will be the end result.

The LP is by no means out of the game. Corbyn still commands remarkable popularity from his own support base and elsewhere. The incessant campaign of venom directed against him from the mainstream media has also been exposed as partisan and inaccurate. At the time of writing, Labour continues to close the gap with Conservatives, although whether it will be enough to place Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street is another matter. There is room for hope.

Politics can be both unpredictable and drawn out. Corbyn won not once, but twice when it came to settling the issue of party leadership after the hard years of Blairism. This in itself was remarkable. He’s endured a deluge of vitriol from the media and Blairites in his own party as a result. Yet he’s still here. With that kind of backbone, and having set a precedent for an authentically different kind of politics, Theresa May could still be in for a shock. She no doubt already is feeling increasingly uneasy. We’re still in for a hard fight, but there are new possibilities ahead.

Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specializing in human rights and international relations. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at DanielTRead.