Is the General Election called for 8 June 2017 good for Brexit? I think it is, but the answer to that question depends on how you read Theresa May, and the political situation in Westminster and Brussels. May said this:
“In recent weeks Labour has threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach with the European Union. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill.
“The Scottish National Party say they will vote against the legislation that formally repeals Britain’s membership of the European Union. And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.
“Our opponents believe because the government’s majority is so small, that our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course. They are wrong.
“They underestimate our determination to get the job done and I am not prepared to let them endanger the security of millions of working people across the country.
“Because what they are doing jeopardises the work we must do to prepare for Brexit at home and it weakens the government’s negotiating position in Europe.
“If we do not hold a general election now their political game-playing will continue, and the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election.
“Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country.
But May was a Remainer wasn’t she? Yes, she was, though a very unenthusiastic one. But the idea that this is some dastardly plot to row back on the ‘hard’ or ‘clean’ Brexit May has promised, or to scrap it entirely, doesn’t really add up.
First, if May had wanted to do that why would she have promised her Brexit plan in the first place? (A plan so true to Leave thinking that even Nigel Farage has not been able to find fault with it, on paper anyway).
Before an exit plan had been formulated, and before Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50, a General Election could have changed everything. MPs could have argued that an election gave them a new mandate, and permission to overturn the referendum. But May held her nerve. The Parliamentary vote in which MPs voted by 498 votes to 114 to trigger Article 50, and that fact that every UK-wide party (even the Lib Dems) will be standing on a manifesto of continuing with the process, means that can’t now happen. If there is an explanation for May’s timing in calling this election, beyond her recent walking holiday, the need to get Article 50 out of the way first is a likely one.
Some BBC presenters have been taking the line that an increased majority would allow May to pursue a ‘softer’ Brexit, freed from the pressure of eurosceptic back-benchers. But this ignores the electoral arithmetic. There were more Remainers than Leavers amongst the MPs of every party except UKIP. The main threat to May’s plan comes, as she said, from a possible coalition of Remainers from her own back benches, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and peers.
The only explanation consistent with the evidence is that May is trying to do what she says: implement a Brexit plan that involves leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, ending the free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court; and negotiating the best possible free trade deal as a third country, but being prepared to walk away if there is no good deal to be had.
I understand why Kippers find it hard to trust May. She was on the Remain side in the referendum, and as Home Secretary she had a terrible record on controlling immigration. Is it really possible she has changed?
I believe it is. I think those with very strong views on either side of a question find it hard to understand the point of view of someone who who just doesn’t care all that much either way. I don’t think May ever understood the passions for and against EU membership. I don’t think she sees anything terribly wrong with being governed by an unelected supranational oligarchy. (Though as Home Secretary she certainly experienced some of the problems it causes in practice). She probably shared David Cameron’s views about fruitcakes and loonies banging on about Europe. So she is not “one of us” and never will be. But she is now equally exasperated by the fanatical Remoaners who won’t just accept they have lost.
There is a certain managerial point of view according to which you can either be in the EU and try to change it from within to suit your own interests, or not be in it at all, and it doesn’t matter much which you do, as long as you make a decision and stick to it. When David Cameron failed to deliver on his Bloomberg speech it became obvious to many people that the first option was never going to work. It may have been obvious to May. But it was not clear to her that Leave stood a chance of winning in June last year, and this was not something over which she wanted to break ranks with the PM and Chancellor.
On June 24 everything changed. The people voted for Plan B, and the chaos that would be unleashed by ignoring that decision means that Plan B it must be. I do not think it is at all far fetched to think that Theresa May has decided she will be remembered for how well she delivers Plan B. The plan she has set out is pretty much the one outlined by David Davis that I wrote about here. Having decided to implement Brexit it is not unlikely she would accept the advice of her ministers on how to go about it.
From the managerial point of view it is obvious that some kind of half-way house would – for a country of the size and influence of the UK – be the worst of both worlds, still bound by reams of regulations and European Court rulings, and unable to control our borders or take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the rest of the world. The benefits of making a success of Brexit are clear to all but Remainiacs, even to those who were not prepared to die in a ditch for it in the first place.
So Theresa May’s post-24-June commitment to a clean Brexit is I think genuine, and the General Election on 8 June this year is an attempt to help her achieve it. She is right to seek a mandate for leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, and gaining one in a General Election will strengthen her position in both Westminster and Brussels.
What should Leave voters do?
It seems to me pointless for UKIP to try to take votes from pro-Leave conservatives where they are threatened for example by pro-Remain Lib Dems. (Disclosure: my UKIP membership expired on 6 April and I have not yet decided whether to rejoin). In any case I don’t think the party under Paul Nuttall will have much success in doing so. An electoral strategy is called for. UKIP should ask every candidate if they will pledge to support leaving the EU, not holding a second referendum, and leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. It should stand against any MPs who won’t.
A further strategy of concentrating resources in the 120 constituencies in which UKIP came second in 2015 would make sense. A handful of UKIP MPs (the best the party can realistically hope for) would be able to make a rhetorical contribution in the Commons. But the votes that will deliver Brexit will be those of the new generation of Conservatives MPS who will take up their seats in June.
Postscript 20 April 2017
I have had private communications from Kippers to the effect that May is still not to be trusted and despite what she says, has no intention of delivering on Brexit.
In politics it is not often possible to resolve issues using the scientific method. But here I think it may be. We have two hypotheses:
A) May plans to use her General Election mandate to deliver a proper, clean Brexit as set out in her plan in January, or
B) She plans to use her increased majority to water it down and deliver something less.
If it is (A) then she will put her Brexit plan (or at least its main points) into the Tory manifesto. Then all Tory MPS will be signed up to it (except Ken Clarke, the rules don’t apply to him), and the House of Lords will not be able to challenge it. On the other hand it will be very hard for her to go back on anything in her manifesto (cf. the recent reversed budget announcement to increase National Insurance Contributions).
If it is (B) she won’t put anything so detailed in the manifesto in order to give herself flexibility to water the plan down during negotiations.
So we have a prediction for each hypothesis. We can wait until the manifesto is published in about three weeks and find out which is right.