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.


The surge in support for the Conservative Party and the collapse of its rivals, the center–left Labour and the far–right United Kingdom Independence Party, is stunning. Opinion polls currently give the Conservatives a 20-point lead over Labour, while support for UKIP has atrophied since the Conservatives became the standard-bearers for its signature issue—leaving the EU. The Labour Party is floundering under its far–left leader Jeremy Corbyn, who also backs Brexit but is unpopular among the ageing, provincial voters who form the backbone of support for exiting the EU.

Recent local election results, in which the Conservatives enjoyed their best performance in a decade, suggest that the Conservatives could be on their way to a working parliamentary majority of over 100, a dramatic improvement on their current 17. May has claimed that she is seeking a large majority to show Brussels how united the British people are behind her Brexit strategy. In reality, the British are more divided over Brexit than ever, with a poll recently showing for the first time that a plurality of voters regret the decision to leave the EU. But with Labour attempting to make up the ground it had lost to UKIP over the last decade by backing Brexit, only smaller parties with no chance of forming a government are campaigning on the basis of staying in the EU. As a result, Europhile voters are short of options and May faces no credible threats on the political horizon.

This does not mean that she will find it any easier to demand concessions from Brussels after the election. The EU, which thinks in terms of international and intragovernmental obligations, has no reason to back down simply because its negotiating partner has strong domestic support. In fact, policymakers in Brussels and Berlin actually want May to succeed for the opposite reason: a larger parliamentary bloc will also give her more room to make concessions. That is why May’s accusations that Brussels is trying to undermine her position in the upcoming election makes so little sense: no one on the continent benefits from her remaining in thrall to the unrealistic demands of her own party’s right wing.


The Conservative right remains the largest threat to an eventual agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom. Egged on by a belligerent nationalist press, many Conservative lawmakers claim that it would be better for the United Kingdom to crash out of the EU without reaching any agreement on a future relationship. This would allow London to avoid concessions on issues such as paying unmet financial obligations, immigration, and the continued jurisdiction of European courts in the United Kingdom. But it would also mean that the United Kingdom would lose privileged access to the market to which it currently sends 44 percent of its exports. The understaffed British civil service has not yet fully worked out what the consequences of such a move would be, but it looks likely to amount to around $7.2 billion in tariffs for British exporters per year.

The right’s tough stance is based on the false promises of the Leave campaign, which promoted the idea that the United Kingdom could cut immigration from the EU while maintaining access to the common market. Many Leave campaigners incorrectly portrayed the EU as being on the brink of collapse and therefore desperate to make concessions to the United Kingdom. They also suggested that London would be able to cut separate bilateral deals with countries such as Germany in the aftermath of Brexit. But with the eurozone economy growing faster than both the United Kingdom’s and the United States’, the issue of migration crisis having waned, and anti-EU political forces pushed back in Austria, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, cracks in the bloc are no longer so obvious. At a recent summit meeting, it took less than 15 minutes for the member states to agree on their common negotiating stance toward the British. The EU’s position includes several points anathema to the United Kingdom, including having London settle its financial obligations and reach an agreement on the rights of EU citizens currently in the country before any discussion of their future relationship can proceed.

As Brussels fails to bend, British right–wing politicians and tabloids have responded by blaming the EU for what they see as intransigence and by suggesting that the prime minister must “crush the saboteurs” who they say want to undermine an agreement. By threatening to walk away from the talks and directing her fire at domestic opponents, May is now flirting with these political passions, even if she hopes to eventually sideline them. But the other 27 EU member states have domestic politics too. Following the election of France’s Emmanuel Macron and the likely reelection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September, both Paris and Berlin will be absorbed by their own priorities to push through economic reform in pursuit of eurozone stability and growth. They are bound by their own national interests, as well as those of the bloc as a whole, to take a tough stance against a country that has chosen to make itself increasingly irrelevant to their future concerns.

There is also a risk that the increasingly poisonous tone of British political discourse will harden the hearts of other European electorates, and hence their governments, toward the United Kingdom. The German government, as the paymaster of Europe, is under severe domestic pressure not to let the United Kingdom dilute the Brexit financial settlement in the way British politicians argue they can. Meanwhile Poland, which under different circumstances might be one of the main proponents of an amicable Brexit, has first and foremost to protect the interests of the large Polish diaspora in the United Kingdom. This British sojourn into hardline campaigning for the snap election means serious discussions on such issues cannot begin until June, wasting two months of the brief two-year period that London has to reach an agreement with the EU on their future relationship.

If May’s gamble pays off, she will be able to tame her party’s right wing, reach a favorable and moderate agreement with the EU, and go into the next election in 2022 as the prime minister who delivered a successful Brexit. But she risks losing it all if she continues to pose as Boudicca when Brussels refuses to follow the script that British nationalists want it to. The stakes for both the prime minister and the country are high. Both May and the country at large will soon have to stop electioneering, honestly assess the cards they hold, and start dealing.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ANDREW GAWTHORPE is a Lecturer in History and International Studies at Leiden University in The Netherlands. He formerly worked in the British Cabinet Office.
  • More By Andrew Gawthorpe