Theresa May is trying to pre-empt Brexit difficulties – it could backfire!


By Richard Corbett

This blog originally appeared here 

Theresa May has sprung an early election, breaking her earlier pledges not to, for three reasons:

  • She knows the Brexit negotiations will very quickly cause her problems, as the unpalatable choices she has to make will alienate many voters and elements in her party – better to have the election before that begins to bite!
  • She is unsure that she would get the Brexit deal (the Article 50 “divorce”  agreement) through the House of Commons, and she hopes to increase the size of the currently small Conservative majority
  • She wants to take advantage of the perceived disarray in Labour

She should beware. The last Tory PM to call an early election on a single issue while ahead in the polls was Edward Heath – and he lost.

But for this to happen again will require that Labour gets its house in order. If May is placing  “full steam ahead to Brexit” at the centre of her strategy, Labour must visibly oppose it – not just in the name of the 48% who voted to remain, but on behalf of those who voted to leave but who now have doubts about the “hard”, costly, economically damaging Brexit that the government has chosen to go for.

Labour has been perceived as sitting on the fence on this issue, or wanting to avoid it. Our dismal showing in last week’s polls – 21% behind the Conservatives – shows our current hedging over Europe is not working. It is not the only problem, of course, but it is an important one. A key way to stop a hemorrhaging of Labour votes in the next few weeks is for the party to come out firmly and say that the hard Brexit that Theresa May is offering is not what people voted for, and that no Brexit is better than a bad Brexit.

May’s assertion on Easter Sunday that ‘there is a sense that people are coming together and uniting behind the opportunities that lie ahead’ is pure fantasy. Every day sees another sector – manufacturing, healthcare, finance, transport, universities, farming and others – raising major concerns about how Brexit will affect them. More generally, inequality is rising under Tory austerity policies and disquiet is rising about the grip that the right-wing has over her party.

Further, it beggars belief that May can claim ‘this country is one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future’ when we consider that the union is more threatened than it has been for decades, with a demand for a second referendum in Scotland and the very real possibility that Northern Ireland may look south of its borders for a more European future.

Within days of her triggering of Article 50, May has had to roll back on several of the demands of her negotiating position – on immigration, on the timetable and on considering a longer transition period. Daily there are examples of the long-predicted complications across all policy areas – the relocation of the European agencies out of London, banks and industry looking to move jobs and headquarters to Ireland or other European cities, a stalling of investment in the UK during this period of uncertainty and price rises in basic goods pushing up inflation due to the fall in the value of the pound, being just a few of the most recent stories.

The campaigning choice for Labour is obvious.

Two thirds of Labour voters supported remain, and many of those who didn’t will still vote Labour either because they now have doubts about Brexit or because they don’t consider it a sufficient reason to change. But on the other side, many relatively centrist conservatives are sufficiently unhappy with May’s hard Brexit to consider not voting for her. There is all to play for.

Recent by-elections have shown that the threat to Labour from an increasingly shambolic UKIP has not materialised. We have lost more votes to the Lib Dems. They and the SNP have a clear pro-European stance and are benefitting from that – but neither is able to lead the opposition charge in the election.

And let’s not forget that the Labour Party Conference last September voted unanimously to keep open the option of remaining in the European Union:

“[Conference] … believes that unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable then the option of retaining EU membership should be retained … The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or a referendum.”

The Conservatives intend to make this election all about Brexit. It is beholden on Labour to oppose it. To stand up for the 48% ignored by the Brexiteers, to stand up for those among the 52% who have doubts about May’s hard Brexit, and to prevent the country making a mistake that will damage our economy and our standing in the world for years to come.