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Brexit may take centre-stage as the starting gun is fired in the UK general election

By John O’Brennan, Maynooth University

The decision by UK Prime Minister Theresa May to ask the House of Commons to vote on whether to hold a General Election on 8 June did not come out of the blue. Although May and her key aides repeatedly denied that they would move an election, the message they have been receiving from opinion polls (which show the Labour Party at its lowest ebb since 1983) is that a surprise general election could significantly boost the strength of the Conservative Party in Westminster.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that Labour will vote for the election did not come as a surprise either. An opposition party is after all supposed to oppose, and, when the opportunity presents itself,  to confront the government in an electoral contest. Corbyn’s position would undoubtedly have been weakened following the local elections on 4 May and he would have faced renewed calls for his resignation. Now he gets a brief stay of execution. But if, as expected, Labour perform very poorly in the June general election, his position will become untenable.

The most striking question this general election throws up surrounds the role that Brexit will play during the campaign. Negotiations with the European Union were due to begin in early May once the European Council’s draft guidelines are formally approved at a special EU27 summit meeting to be held on 29 April. Now, with a general election in the offing in Britain on 8 June, it is highly likely that these talks will be postponed, at least until the conclusion of the vote.

The big winners might well be the Liberal Democrats. They have been hoovering up council seats in by-elections throughout England since June 2016 and their opposition to Brexit has played a big part in the revival of their electoral fortunes. They could treble or quadruple the number of seats they hold in the House of Commons. Tactical voting on the part of Remain voters would greatly assist the Liberal Democrats’ cause.

The Liberal Democrat task has been rendered considerably easier by the extraordinarily confused position of the Labour party on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn has been an avowed Euro-sceptic throughout his career and, although he supported the Remain side during the referendum, the suspicion persists that he wants the UK to leave the EU. Labour has oscillated back and forth since the referendum, opposing a ‘hard Brexit’ but unwilling to offer any real parliamentary opposition to Theresa May once she declared her intention to leave the Single Market.

Labour’s reticence on Brexit is directly related to the vulnerability of a large number of their parliamentary seats in traditional Labour heartlands in the Midlands and North of England, constituencies which voted to Leave the EU. Immigration will again be a seminal issue in these constituencies and the Labour party has struggled to articulate a consistent position on this both before and after the referendum.

Had the Labour party more actively opposed the impulse towards a hard Brexit over the last ten months, it would have been in a much better position than it is now. If the party had bothered to explain the considerable benefits accruing to the UK from intra-EU migration, it might have been in a position to harness itself electorally to the 48 per cent of people who voted to Remain. Many of those people (and not a few of those who voted to Leave) are even more concerned now about the possibility of a hard Brexit resulting in reduced living standards and a UK isolated and marginalised in global politics.

For Theresa May the attraction of an early general election lies in the promise of exploiting Labour’s extraordinary weakness and delivering a much stronger majority for the Tory party in the House of Commons. Those who think of her as a pragmatist suggest that an increased parliamentary majority will strengthen her hand considerably in the Brexit negotiations. She will be able to risk settling for arrangements falling well short of the complete break from the EU that many of her hard-line MPs (and a good number of cabinet ministers) want. She will be able to keep Britain in the Customs Union and avoid having to revert to WTO rules on trade which would invite significant increases in tariffs and disruptions to UK trade. Thus calling a general election constitutes a masterstroke of timing that will greatly advance her authority as Prime Minister and copper-fasten the dominance of the Conservative Party for a generation.

This analysis is interesting but not persuasive. For one thing, Mrs May is a highly suspect pragmatist. For much of her tenure as Home Secretary, she opposed the European Union tooth and nail. From an early stage she supported taking the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights, a position she has adhered to subsequently. That in itself should have constituted evidence of her fundamentalist instincts on the European Union.

During the referendum campaign she offered only very tepid support for the Remain cause, earning the sobriquet ‘the submarine’ for the invisible trace she left on the debate. Since taking office as Prime Minister she has continued to echo the hard-line approach of the hard Brexiteers. The combined efforts of the hardliners and their vocal nativist allies at the Express, the Mail and the Sun newspapers will make it difficult for May to steer the pragmatic course that Ireland, Europe and a large proportion of her own voters will be hoping for.

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