“Men [and Women] who are capable of real action first make their plans and then go forward without hesitation while their enemies have still not made up their minds.”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Alphen, Netherlands. 21 April. First, a very Happy Birthday to both my bosses; my wife and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Second, let me define for you the meaning of ‘to make hay whilst the sun shines’. It is to make the most of any given circumstance or opportunity. British Prime Minister Theresa May is certainly ‘making hay’. Her not-so-surprising call of a ‘snap’ June 8 General Election has caught many off-balance; friends and opponents alike. The likelihood that she will win is clear, what is less clear is whether she will get the thumping parliamentary majority she seeks to do what she thinks she needs to do. So, what are the domestic and international reasons for Theresa May to call what will undoubtedly be dubbed ‘May’s Brexit Election’?
1. Consolidate her Brexit negotiating position in Parliament: As soon as the courts stopped her using royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 to begin Britain’s departure from the EU to my mind a general election was inevitable. There were simply too many barriers, and too many Trojan horses that could undermine her Brexit negotiating position. Although the Labour Party supported the triggering of Article 50 its deep divisions mean it is likely engage in a form of guerrilla warfare throughout the process if for no other reason than to keep it slavishly pro-EU membership happy. Add unstable Labour to the contrarily pro-EU SNP and the EU fantasists in the Liberal Democrats, as well as the small, but influential rump of anti-Brexiteers to the left of her own Conservative Party, May could be politically ambushed at any time during what are going to be fraught negotiations with Brussels.
2. Consolidate her Brexit negotiating position within the Conservative Party: It is not just the Tory left she fears. She will at some stage have to face down the implacable EU-hating Tory right. At some stage a deal will be reached with the EU (hopefully) and that will require compromises that many on the right of her party will find unpalatable. With a large majority that she had personally won at the ballot box May would have a personal mandate that would enable her to see off any challenge from the right.
3. Make the most of the shambles that is the Labour Party: The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has never been weaker. Decent man of the Left that he is, his socialist/pacifist/redistributive vision for Britain simply does not chime with much of the key constituency in any British election – Middle England. His ‘chiming’ rings particularly weak with older, patriotic Middle England who simply cannot see Corbyn as prime minister and, crucially, will vote in very large numbers to keep him out of Downing Street.
4. Weaken the Scottish secessionists: Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish Nationalist Party did spectacularly well in the 2015 general election winning 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in Scotland. Now that Sturgeon has been in government in Edinburgh for some time there are signs that her ‘blame the English for everything to gain independence’ strategy is beginning to wear thin with centrist Scottish voters. It is hard to see how Sturgeon could do better than 2015 at the June 8 elections.
5. Shore up her negotiating position with the EU: Leaked documents overnight from the European Commission reveal not only its negotiating position, but also the extent to which the EU is morphing from democratic union into a form of dictatorial empire which seeks to punish any member-states that dares countenance leaving the EU. May is clearly going to face one hell of a fight with Commission, and its rubber-stampers in the European Parliament. The Commission’s attempt to impose the European Court of Justice on a post-Brexit Britain will turn ugly if she is to resist the Commission’s colonial/imperial strategy. For that she will need to be politically strong at home, not least to see off the EU dreamers and fantasists in parliament.
6. Make the most of Britain’s strengths: As the Commission was preparing to commence hostilities yesterday 800 British troops were arriving in the Baltic States to lead part of NATO’s efforts to ensure credible deterrence against Russian intimidation. Next week RAF Typhoon fighters will fly to south-eastern Europe to help protect the air space of Bulgaria and Romania. The real danger from an overtly hostile and aggressive Commission Brexit negotiating position is that very quickly the British people will begin to ask why they are being expected to defend people and states who are part of a bloc that seems determined to damage Britain for an act of democracy. If that happens NATO will not be insulated from the strategic and political fall-out of Brexit.
7. Fight the Brexit money fight: The real Brexit fight with the EU will come down to money. The EU is about to lose some 16% of its entire budget. There are only 6 EU member-states which pay 67% of the entire EU budget and the loss of the British money will impose more cost on those few states that in effect part for the EU. Britain has an economy worth some $3 trillion which is larger than 20 of the EU 28 member-states combined. The loss of British money could in effect bankrupt the EU, which is why Brussels is demanding a €60bn ‘divorce’ settlement. May will face a tough fight over money.
8. Eventually get a sensible Brexit deal through Parliament: At some point a sensible, negotiated deal will be reached. Such a deal will involve the British paying some not insignificant moneys into the EU budget for some time to come. It will also need to involve sensible, transitional arrangements on trade and people. Given her current slim majority of 17 in the House of Commons when she presents the deal she could be held hostage by a mix of Brexit deniers and Brexit hardliners.
9. Reinforce May’s own personal political legitimacy: The decisions that are going to be taken over the next five years will be truly historic for both Britain and the rest of Europe, with profound implications for NATO and Britain’s wider strategic relationships. Theresa May became prime minister by Conservative Party fiat when David Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum. May needs a general election to reinforce her own political authority, legitimacy, and indeed capital, during what is going to be a bumpy five years.
Taking all of the above together it is hard to see that Prime Minister Theresa May had any other choice than to call a snap election. Faced with either being seen as a strong Margaret Thatcher or a weak John Major, May has clearly opted to be the former. However, whether or not she achieves her strategic and political aims with this election, well that is a completely different question.
It is never dull in Blighty these days!