GE2017: May’s great strategic blunder…?

When Theresa May called for a snap general election in April 2017, she expected to – in the now infamous words of the Daily Mail – ‘crush the saboteurs’. This was premised on the idea that within the Commons a substantial number of MPs from opposition parties were intending on frustrating the Brexit negotiations in a way which would lead to the UK remaining in the European Union.

Put simply, May argued that Labour, SNP, and Liberal Democrat MPs were preventing the government from being able to secure the best deal in Brussels, and therefore an election would force their hand into either supporting or ignoring the outcome of the 2016 Referendum.

From an electoral position she was confident this strategy would work, given the impressive local election results for the Conservatives – but also because substantial poll leads appeared to indicate a landslide victory would be the likely outcome.

Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party had become a source of much derision following Owen Smith’s leadership challenge, and discontent within the PLP towards Corbyn’s leadership style led to a widely-held assumption that Labour would face an electoral wipe-out on a par with 1983.

These factors gifted May with a sense of confidence that she would yield electoral dividends if an election was called, and this could be used as a show of strength in Brussels.

As events played out, this was not to be the case. Instead of benefitting from a renewed mandate with a thumping majority, the Conservatives instead lost their small majority from 2015 and – in so doing – entirely failed to crush the opposition. Discussions over the election campaign have been had in other places, and so I will avoid evaluating it here. However, the impact on the Brexit negotiations has been substantial.

The outcome of the election shifted the narrative away from an inevitable Brexit, and instead towards calls for softer Brexit which would see the UK retaining membership of key components of the EU.

Moreover, the message that May was hoping to construct – that the entire United Kingdom has demonstrated its support for the position of the government – failed to materialise, which has weakened the bargaining position of the UK over the ensuing period. This had a profound impact in Brussels, and we saw a weakened Prime Minister and negotiating position.

The consequence of this failure of electoral strategy galvanised the EU position, and created uncertainty in the UK about what the future will look like. Indeed, until the general election it was possible for May to argue that the outcome of the 2016 referendum was clear.

However, when asked to renew that mandate through a general election, the voters failed to back the Conservative government.

The government has been clear that it intends the UK to leave the customs union and single market, but given the weakened position it is unable to claim this has been endorsed by the voters.

Elsewhere, on major issues such as the Irish border the UK position looks uncertain. As a consequence, this has also galvanised Remainers who wish to see another referendum on the final terms of the deal.

In terms of how the election is currently impacting on the Brexit negotiations, May and the Conservative government have never been able to recover their credibility. This is because there is a sense of defeat surrounding the administration which has affected May’s statecraft model. Put simply, the general election inflicted a wound on the government from which it has never recovered.

The intention was to create a demonstration of electoral support for the Conservatives which would strengthen their hand in Brussels. It did the opposite. Indeed, as the election fades from the immediate memory, its impact will be felt until the UK leaves the EU however it will always be remembered as something of a strategic blunder that will taint May’s Premiership for however long it lasts.

By Dr Andrew S. Crines, lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool. He researches oratory and rhetoric in British party politics.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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