The Unpleasant Counterpart: UK Snap Election and the Brexit Negotiations

May 9, 2017


Expectations of many, including myself, became reality on April 17 when Prime Minister Theresa May announced holding snap general election on June 8. The rumor and the speculation of the snap election taking place has been looming over Britain ever since the Brexit referendum almost a year ago. Back then, the argument was rather simple - since then-Prime minister David Cameron resigned in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, a new government with the mandate from the people to attend the Brexit negotiations with the EU should be elected. Nevertheless, the law in the UK did not necessitate that and a new PM was selected from within the Conservative Party.

The reason for calling the snap election now, almost a year later is rather different. Theresa May saw her existing opposition from the Labour Party all but disintegrate. First, the rather cold attitude of Jeremy Corbyn towards the Remain campaign saw his urban, liberal voters depart for different parties. After already a poor result in the 2015 General Election this was another fatal blow for Labour. Soon afterwards, Corbyn lost the support and confidence of the MPs and his shadow cabinet, yet he remained in the leadership of the party because of his strong support among the core trade unions within the Labour Party. Yet his inability of providing a strong leadership, uniting the opposition party and presenting an alternative, credible case of Brexit under Labour leadership have seen the Labour poll numbers plummeting, with the recent evidence of the local elections last week.


This clearly represents a tremendous opportunity for Theresa May and Tories to capitalize on and solidify their position. You have probably heard PM tirelessly repeating her annoying mantra of "strong and stable leadership" and you'll hear it many more times in the future. That is exactly the case Conservatives will present to the voters - no other party is able to deliver on Brexit and to get a good deal with the EU because they are simply weak.

Labour has a mountain to climb and they are losing voters on all fronts. A large share of their electorate did not support Brexit - those in London and Bristol certainly didn't and now are migrating to the Liberal Democrats in large numbers. Those from the traditional bastions for Labour in North England and Wales, who have voted for Brexit are now contemplating to vote Conservatives as they simply don't believe Labour will be able to deliver. In addition to that, the support for the party leader, however principled and honest might be, is flailing and what is more important, it has allowed the Conservatives to claim the essential middle ground in the two-party majoritarian system with the catch-all parties on the centre-left and centre-right.

Speaking of the two-party system though, it might very well become a thing of the past after June 8 with the steady rise of the Liberal Democrats. Being in the ungrateful spot of the "third party" since the 80s, Tim Farron and his party now have a great chance of shaking up the traditional political system and effectively breaking up the established system. Again, it is a very difficult task as the electoral system does not give them any favours. However, the Lib Dems remain the only party pledged to retain a strongly pro-European stance with maintaining the UK access to the Single Market and having a second referendum on the end result of the negotiations. Their uncompromising stance have won them strong support from the core group of the electorate but also moved them to a very extreme position in the political spectrum. There have been some positive signs in the process - Lib Dems have massively increased their membership since the Brexit vote; have won the Richmond Park by-election in London, gaining one more seat in Westminster; strengthened their relationship with the European institutions and had the largest gain in the recent regional and council elections of all parties, taking vote both from Labour and Tories. However, the time is very scarce until June and the poll numbers still don't look great for them - the partisan tradition might just prove to be too much of an obstacle for the third party. Nevertheless, even the British party system is not never-changing and parties came and went. The last time was just after WW2 when we saw the rise of the Labour party in the new political paradigm, representing the workers' unions, social democracy and the welfare state. Perhaps the divide between openness and isolation, nationalism and globalism, tolerance and xenophobia that we have today represents an issue of equal gravity and a new political setting, propelling a new party to the top?

One final remark is rather positive - losing their raison d'etre after June 23rd last year, UKIP seems to be sliding into the abyss of the forgotten. Their awfully weak performance in the regional elections indicated that they have indeed been merely a one-issue, protest party and their voters have now almost completely been captured by the Conservatives.


This is, however, only a poor consolation. All in all, the Conservative Party knew very well why to call the snap election just now and is in a very good position to win even larger majority than is has today. There might be more than a few surprises along the way but this seems like the most likely outcome on June 8.

What does all of that mean for the European Union though? As we have seen from the recent public appearances of Theresa May (including the alleged leaks after the dinner she had with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier) have shown the glimpse of the future and it does not seem bright. With the "Brexit bill" looming over the British exit from the EU, we might expected much more public hostility towards the EU from Tories to simply gain some maneuvering political ground prior to the actual negotiation. This was obvious from the PM comments accusing the EU of  "meddling in the UK elections" or "using the British expats as bargaining chips". Using the EU as a scapegoat will now be easier than ever in the UK, since the sentiments stoked in the lead up to the referendum never faded. 

Moreover, Theresa May still seems to be utterly delusional, not being able to fully realize the complexity of the whole process amid her constant parroting of the "strong and stable leadership" motto and talk of the free trade area (when CETA negotiations took about 7 years to finish despite the mutual positive attitude and cooperation, which will be all but present in the Brexit negotiations). Unfortunately, the British government seems once again to be able to fool its own voters into believing that the EU will somehow kneel before the UK, fiercely supported by far-fetched, misinforming articles in the tabloids such as Daily Mail. The EU will have to prepare to face a much more stubborn and irrational counterpart in the negotiations, who might not be seeking a commonly beneficial outcome.

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