Theresa May's Gamble

Why Britain's Snap Election Will Do Little to Ease Brexit

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May attends a campaign event in York, May 9, 2017. Phil Noble / Reuters

Since her sudden and unexpected call last month for a general election in June, British Prime Minister Theresa May has managed to shed the reputation for indecisiveness that has dogged her since she took power from David Cameron last fall. Also contributing to public perceptions of her strength, she has gone on the attack against the European Union, handily manufacturing a spat by accusing Brussels of seeking to tip the election against her by leaking details of a tense conversation she had recently had with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a private dinner. As can be expected, the admixture of nationalist posturing to political combat has proven intoxicating. The woman once nicknamed “Theresa Maybe” has now been recast by the press as the reincarnation of Boudicca, a warrior queen who led ancient Britons in a revolt against Roman occupation.

All signs point to a dramatic victory for May’s Conservative Party in the upcoming election, scheduled to take place on June 8. Many observers hope that an increased parliamentary majority will free May from the right wing of her own party, which is pushing for the United Kingdom to drive what many consider an unrealistically hard bargain in its negotiations with Brussels. With such voices sidelined, she would be able to make compromises with the EU that will mitigate the damage of its departure. Apparently anticipating just such a result, money markets have grown more optimistic about the United Kingdom since the election was announced.

But such an outcome is far from assured. In particular, the British government needs to be careful not to let its campaign rhetoric—such as accusing the “bureaucrats of Brussels” of using “threats” to interfere with Britain’s democratic process—damage its chances of securing a productive arrangement with the EU over the long term. Brexit is an idea that has always sounded better when discussed in the abstract rather than in detail, but eventually London will have to move from rhetoric to reality.


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