by Frank Schnittger
Tue Apr 18th, 2017 at 10:37:45 PM EST
On the 3rd. January, in A Brexit doomsday scenario, I wrote that:
In an ideal world, she [Theresa May] might actually like to engineer a parliamentary defeat so that she could go to the country in a general election. This could potentially give her a personal mandate as Prime Minister, weed out any parliamentarians in her own party whose loyalty is suspect, add at least another 2 years to her Government's period in office, and provide her with a more precise mandate as to what to seek in the Brexit negotiations. She could put her Brexit wish list to the people and then fetch up in Brussels saying that these are the democratically declared wishes of the British people, and that it would be undemocratic for Brussels to reject them.
A General election would have the added benefits of exploiting the divisions in the Labour Party under Corbyn and a UKIP party riven by internal shenanigans. Only the Lib Dems represent an option for disillusioned Remain voters, but they are more likely to eat into the Labour vote. Indeed the Lib Dems could replace Labour as the main opposition party if they manage to gain a majority of the 48% of voters who voted Remain. Oh the joys, from a Tory perspective!
In any case, given the peculiarities of the British first past the post voting system, May could win an overall majority with as little as 35% of the vote, provided the remaining 65% is scattered between Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Scots Nationalists and the Welsh and N. Ireland parties which generally don't matter in the Westminster arithmetic. Easily enough done, especially if voting Tory can be painted as a patriotic imperative to strengthen the British hand in the Brexit negotiations. Cue Land of Hope and Glory!
As it turned out, no engineered Parliamentary defeat was required to call a general election. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, Labour under Corbyn can be relied on to assist in their own demise. Current opinion polls put the Tories almost 20 points ahead of Labour - c. 45% to 25% of the vote, and while the Lib Dems are neck and neck with UKIP at little over 10% of the vote, who else have disillusioned Remain voters got to vote for? The SNP can hardly improve on its performance last time out in winning 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, and a new vote gives Theresa May's allies in the Ulster Unionist parties an opportunity to recover from their shock defeat in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
This election is, of course, all about securing a strong electoral mandate for her Brexit negotiating strategy and to put pressure on EU leaders to "respect the will of the British people". But as I a wrote in January
Strangely enough, the EU 27 may see things somewhat differently... Firstly, they showed that they have no compunction in overturning a national mandate when they peremptorally dismissed the results of the Greek referendum on the bail-out. Secondly, they may argue that what the British people want is their own business. The job of the EU27 Leaders is to represent their own countries, and the nakedly jingoistic tone of the British referendum (and perhaps a general election) makes this more, not less, important. Finally, they may conclude that what is good for British Tories is precisely what is not good for their own political futures and could only help their far right political opponents at home. The proximity of the Dutch, French and German national elections could exacerbate this process on the EU side.
Thus, far from clarifying things, the political processes used to reinforce opposing negotiating mandates may help to transform the Brexit negotiating process from a rational process aimed at maximising mutual economic advantage to a political process required to keep domestic political oppositions at bay. Instead of trying to resolve differences, negotiators will be instructed to see the negotiations as a war between competing national interests where any concessions could be construed as a sign of weakness at home. The resignation of the UK ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, may be an early straw in the wind that this will indeed be the case.
The almost inevitable outcome of this process will be no substantial Brexit deal of any kind. At best there might be a largely technical deal on administrative details, and even this may fail to muster a majority on the European Council if major issues (such as any outstanding UK contribution to the EU budget) remain unresolved. Countries such as Ireland, with the most to lose from Brexit, will be marginalised in the larger political dynamics at play. The best Ireland can hope for is a deal ensuring that any customs controls will be implemented at air and sea ports in N. Ireland and not at the 500 Km land border with the Republic which even 10,000 British troops couldn't seal off at the height of the troubles.
Having argued long and hard that no early general election is necessary, and that a second Scottish Independence referendum would be unduly divisive and destabilising, Theresa May has now performed a spectacular U-turn. On what basis can she now refuse a second Referendum in Scotland when the outcome of the Brexit negotiations becomes clear? Certainly this election has given the Scottish nationalist Party an opportunity to put their case for a second referendum to their people.
Conversely, UKIPs raison d'être has been snatched from its grasp. Irish Times
Douglas Carswell, who defected as a Conservative MP to Ukip in 2014 before quitting Ukip in March, said: "If you voted Ukip in 2015, it's job done".
The Conservative and Unionist Party is now THE Brexit party.
So what can the 48% who voted Remain do? Some have no doubt accepted the inevitability of Brexit, and are supportive of the Prime Minister's attempt to "make a success of it". Others may reluctantly return to voting for the Labour party, in the hope that Labour can help ensure that the terms of Brexit will be more to their liking. But if a majority of Remainers end up voting for the Lib Dem party in the hope of stopping the headlong charge into a hard "no deal is better than a bad deal" Brexit, then the Lib Dems could be the main gainers in this election, and could even, at a stretch, challenge the Labour party's position in the two party duopoly that is the almost inevitable outcome of the UK's crude first past the post electoral system.
That would indeed be a historic re-alignment of UK politics - the most radical since Labour displaced the Liberals as the second party in UK politics almost 100 years ago. If, on the other hand, Labour survive this deluge (which would still be my highest probability expectation), it could be the Tories who are cast out of the two party duopoly at the next election, if the rest of Brexit also turns out to be the disaster I predicted in A Brexit doomsday scenario.
Either way it seems clear that British politics is now set for a period of almost unprecedented uncertainty and change, for all of Theresa May's protestations that this election is all about stability. The probability of Scottish Independence just got significantly higher, and British and Irish officials are agreed that what happens in and to Northern Ireland is now of little concern to Westminister. Janan Ganesh argues that Theresa May is genuine in her conviction that an (Anglican) Christian Briton restricting immigration and pursuing a “red, white and blue” Brexit is what is best for the Great British Nation. She may be about to discover how little of that vision may be realised.
What has been striking so far has been the degree to which this process has been entirely self-inflicted. EU leaders have been calm, united, and measured in their responses. There has been no anti-British tone in the Dutch, French and German general election campaigns to date. No one in the UK can claim that this upsurge in English Nationalism was provoked by EU leaders slighting Britain at every turn. On the contrary, EU leaders have been conciliatory, the EU public seem resigned to the UK leaving, and some seem relieved that this process now appears to have an end date. The EU and UK are truly on completely different trajectories, and we have yet to see how far apart they may yet move.
The historic re-alignment may therefore consist of three distinct realignments: Firstly, of the Westminster party system; secondly, of the position of Scotland and N. Ireland within the UK; and thirdly, of the position of the UK within Europe. For a Conservative leader, May is pursuing a truly radical course of action.