A very Brexit election

18 April 2017 - by Matthew

Theresa May, who had long dismissed any prospect of a snap general election, will now bring us to the polls on 8 June.

Her ascension to Downing Street in the wake of David Cameron’s post-plebiscite resignation may have been absent the electoral mandate usually reserved for a new Prime Minister (only the people of Maidenhead will ever see Mrs May’s name on a ballot, of course), but the message from the majority of the electorate was clear. As David Dimbleby so soberly proclaimed on the morning of 24 June: “We’re out.”

Girded by polling showing the Conservatives’ nearest challengers, Labour, in relative disarray under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and looking forward to a good local election on 4 May, the Prime Minister has acted. 

Ironically, having placed the manner of the UK’s exit from the EU at the core of her announcement speech, Mrs May runs the risk of being accused of inducing a referendum on the referendum. 

Allowing the public to review its decision from last year has always been rejected outright by a Brexit caucus unwilling to enable further searching scrutiny of plans to extricate the Union from the Union. The referendum offered a simple solution to a question whose complexities become more evident every day and though a general election is a far messier affair, few policy positions beyond Brexit are likely to crowd the prevailing narrative.  

The Prime Minister stressed the necessity of a strong negotiating hand when dealing with the other 27 EU member states and pointed to the need for the Commons to unite around the issue of withdrawal.

In spite of the zealous opposition to this government’s approach from the depleted Liberal Democrats, the enraged SNP and isolated Labour elements, passage of all parliamentary business with respect to Brexit — forced down that route by a Supreme Court ruling — has encountered few obstacles. Only a brief insurrection in the Lords, ever aware of its own unelected nature, threatened the rapidity of Mrs May’s proposals. 

The bloc, too, is unlikely to be stirred by an election that returns the same Conservative hegemony with which it is already dealing. 

Of those vying to upset the government, the Lib Dems and SNP appear best prepared in the present context. Traditionally accused of lacking ideas broad enough to command a national consensus, the Lib Dems have readily defined themselves as the champions of the 48 per cent who opted to remain within the EU. 

More specifically, party leader Tim Farron continues to rail loudly against the kind of “hard Brexit” that would see the UK exit the single market and customs union without an agreement, setting sail, instead, on a sea of WTO tariffs and prospective trade deals with Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. If the party can elevate this one issue, it might make gains similar to its by-election pick-up in the pro-remain, previously Conservative seat of Richmond.  

The SNP’s collective feelings on Brexit are even more raucous, yet they must be viewed through the prism of the recharged moves for independence. Nowhere in the UK was more hostile to leaving than Scotland, where 62 per cent favoured continued EU membership. Anything other than a thundering triumph north of the border would be deemed a loss.  

In contrast, the current health of Labour indicates that a general election campaign is unwelcome. Mr Corbyn enjoys much support from within the base but his tepid support for the remain camp and willingness to toe the government’s Brexit line in parliament has compounded deep divisions in the ranks.

A pro-European party, Labour has been cowed by the anti-EU sentiment that saw so many of its constituencies come down on the leave side of the equation and it continues to navigate a narrow path between its own instincts and its traditional heartlands. Mr Corbyn’s ability to survive has been severely tested since his leadership began, but a crushing defeat could spell the end. 

What, then, of Northern Ireland? In spite of the specific, localised spin applied to any UK-wide issue in the region, the referendum has calcified into a dominant feature of our political reality. Sinn Féin quickly seized on the election as an ‘opportunity to oppose Brexit and reject Tory cuts’, while the SDLP’s leader, Colum Eastwood, spoke of an opening to “strengthen the mandate of parties which campaigned against and consistently voted against Brexit at Westminster”.  

Between them, the nationalist parties hold seven seats in parliament and Sinn Féin will, undoubtedly, seek to gain at least two at the expense of the SDLP. In Belfast South and Foyle, Sinn Féin outpolled their rivals at the recent Assembly election. In Foyle, Mark Durkan’s majority may be hefty enough to sustain him, but Alasdair McDonnell’s Belfast South win two years ago was a much tighter result. 

The always competitive Fermanagh and South Tyrone was eventually secured for unionism in 2015, Tom Elliot’s victory over Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Féin coming courtesy of a pact that saw the DUP step aside. Whether or not the UUP and DUP will come to a similar accommodation is questionable.

The new UUP leader, Robin Swann, last week referenced his two MPs (the second, South Antrim’s Danny Kinahan, beat out a DUP incumbent in 2015) as a sign of party strength; losing one of them on foot of unionist division would be wounding.

Tellingly, however, the DUP’s response to Mrs May’s decision struck a combative tone. Party leader Arlene Foster said that the upcoming race represented a chance to “vote for the Union.” She called on voters to unify around a “strong Democratic Unionist Party that will advocate for them in Parliament.” With eight MPs, the DUP boasts a not insignificant measure of influence in London and it would be a surprise if those numbers were to fall on June 8th. That said, the predicted increase in Conservative MPs could dilute the DUP's leverage.

As far as our local political impasse goes, it is difficult to see how prominently direct rule will feature in Westminster’s thinking right now. Mr Eastwood’s allegation that Northern Ireland seems a distant concern for Mrs May et al resonates with many, but the establishment of a new Executive is something Whitehall will want to accomplish, in one way or another.