Now that British Prime Minister Theresa May has been pegged back to a minority government, her decision to hold a snap election to increase her slim Parliamentary majority looks like a mistake. It wasn’t.
A sound idea poorly executed doesn’t render the idea into an error. No, May’s failed gambit should place the spotlight where it belongs: on execution. Here the prime minister failed miserably, and it will be Britain that pays the price as it begins the process to leave the European Union.
Why was May’s decision sound?
First, the political: Brexit has yet to bite. After cruising for most of the past year following the referendum vote, the British economy is now sputtering. More pain is surely to come and May wanted to secure her mandate before Brexit — which she campaigned against — began to bite.
May also had an overwhelming poll advantage over her prime opponent, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. The prime minister saw a very real chance to mute her opposition and give herself maximum manoeuvrability (both at home and abroad) while securing Britain’s delicate exit from the European Union. Few, if any, observers thought Corbyn would rise to the challenge.
There were also principled reasons for a trip to the polls: May didn’t have a mandate from the British people for her domestic program, nor did she have one for the kind of Brexit to be negotiated. Former prime minister David Cameron — whom May replaced soon after he was felled by the shock result of the EU referendum — only promised the referendum, not the variety of Brexit or a plan to deliver it.
Sound reasons behind May’s decision do not, however, excuse her shambolic campaign. One doesn’t call an election the “most important in a generation” because of Brexit and then say nothing about it from the safety of a tightly scripted campaign bubble.
May ducked almost every opportunity to lead a conversation and was painfully short of answers when asked about the hard choices facing Britain. Had May been forthright with the British people she might have been rewarded for her candour with the majority she sought.
May then compounded her error by demoralizing her base with punitive policies, such as changes to the funding of social care — the so-called “dementia tax” — and end to the triple-lock pension. Meanwhile, Corbyn and Labour fired up their (much younger) base.
The result is a greatly reduced Theresa May, left to cobble together a contentious arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to secure a parliamentary majority that isn’t likely to deliver the Brexit supported by a majority of her Conservative Party. No wonder May is under threat.
But the Conservatives know any attempt to replace May now would only succeed in having the words “Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn” enter the history books. They will stick together at least until they win the confidence of the House of Commons with a Queen’s Speech and kick off the first round of Brexit negotiations.
Even if the Conservatives were to lose the confidence of the House it’s not clear Jeremy Corbyn could command it. Despite Labour’s bluster they are still some 60-plus seats short of a majority and any coalition of Labour with the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists would be equally wobbly to May’s with the DUP.
This serial instability portends badly for Brexit, which is still officially supported by the Conservative and Labour parties, despite wishful talk by “remainers” of a reversal. Yes, the new composition of the House is likely to favour a “softer” form of Brexit, with some attachment to the common market, but this is a red-line for the militant Brexiters in May’s brood. It’s a right mess.
Somewhat incredibly, May’s greatest error wasn’t even the poor execution of the snap election campaign; it was triggering the two-year Brexit countdown with the European Union before calling it. The odds of a prosperous Britain emerging in the wake of Brexit get shorter the longer it takes Britain’s political class to get its act together. This isn’t likely to happen without another election, perhaps as early as the autumn.
One can only hope that May, or whoever is Britain’s prime minister come the time of the next election call, takes more care with the execution of their campaign.
The future of Britain could depend on it.