On April 18, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to call a general election, ostensibly to gain a mandate for her negotiating strategy for leaving the European Union. The following week, May had dinner with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, at 10 Downing Street. There, it became clear that even if May gains her mandate, she has no plausible strategy to execute it, merely a delusion of power.
Among the choice assessments the European side leaked to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung were that May “does not live on planet Mars but rather in a galaxy very far away” and that the probability of failure was “over 50 percent.” One official felt the need to point out to her that the European Union is “not a golf club.” Juncker left Downing Street telling May that he was “ten times more skeptical” than he was before.
Whatever problems the election can possibly fix for May, it will not fix this—any more than Donald Trump’s winning in November will make Mexico pay for the wall. Indulging a parochial bellicosity may make domestic victories possible, but it doesn’t necessarily make foreign accords any easier. Not long after she became prime minister, May, who had voted to remain in the European Union, notoriously announced that “Brexit means Brexit.” Now that the Europeans are making it clear what Brexit means to them, she is flummoxed. At the dinner with Juncker, she emphasized that she wanted Brexit to be a success. But the consensus in Brussels is that Brexit can’t be an all-around success because, however the negotiations work out, Britain will be worse off for being out of the EU. Gaining a mandate for a bad idea doesn’t make it a good one; it makes it a bad idea you’ve convinced others to buy into.
On that front, however, the British prime minister may well be successful. When she called the election, which will take place on June 8, May was 21 points ahead in the polls and the clear favorite. But anyone who decides to hang their hat on the polls as a fail-safe indicator has probably already lost their shirt on Brexit and Trump. These are volatile times. Journalism’s most useful function in moments like this is to analyze what it can see, not presume to predict what it cannot know.
What is clear: Labour is weakened. Its parliamentarians spent a year fighting with its membership after the base overwhelmingly elected hard-left stalwart Jeremy Corbyn as party leader over three milquetoast moderates. Under Corbyn, Labour has grown massively in membership and fallen dramatically in the polls. The press is almost universally hostile to both Corbyn and the party. Brexit has given him a tough challenge to which, thus far, he has failed to rise. His attempt to please both Labour’s pro-European metropolitan wing and that element of its rust-belt base that voted to leave the EU has left neither side satisfied.
The first week of the campaign, however, Corbyn has been quite impressive—warm with the public, fluent on the stump, engaged on the issues. His agenda—taxing the rich to help pay for greater investment in education, health, and housing—is far less radical than his reputation.
The Tories have been no less divided, but far more efficient in resolving their divisions. May rose from the ashes of Brexit, which claimed both Prime Minister David Cameron and the Tory leaders of the Leave campaign. She backed Remain but has since championed the most extreme form of Brexit imaginable, a move designed to neutralize her opponents to the right. Assuming her victory is assured, May has so far refused to guarantee to protect pensions at their current value and will not take tax hikes off the table. Her performance on the campaign trail has been wooden and gaffe-prone: She’s already forgotten what city she was in; went to canvass in Scotland only to find that nobody would open the door to her; and said she wants Britain to “lead the world in preventing tourism.” In the 10 months she’s been at the helm, she’s been forced to make some spectacular U-turns, like scrapping a tax hike for the self-employed just days after it was announced. The media are behind her, but that doesn’t mean she’s not vulnerable.
Meanwhile, calls for a progressive electoral alliance in which the opposition parties—Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish Nationalist Party—withdraw from those constituencies where they stand little chance of winning to allow the candidate best poised to defeat the Tories a free run have gathered popular support but little official backing from the major parties.
If May wins, she’ll get two more years than she would have had anyway. Nonetheless, a great deal is at stake, including the union itself. A Tory victory and “hard Brexit” could spark another Scottish independence referendum and even the secession of Northern Ireland, which voted Remain and whose peace accord with the south was bound up with EU membership. And while Brexit provides the inescapable backdrop to everything that comes next, other things will come independently. The National Health Service is in crisis, funding for education is being slashed, and what remains of the welfare state is being shorn away—all in the name of austerity.
What is not yet clear in this election is the degree to which voters will primarily identify through Brexit—with Leavers voting Tory and Remainers voting against them—and to what extent they’ll fall back on existing, if weakening, party affiliations. While the leaks from Juncker’s dinner were self-serving, the Europeans are probably right in their assessment that there is no such thing as a successful Brexit—only varying degrees of bad, of which this government is choosing the worst. Sadly, that decision was made on June 23, 2016. On June 8, 2017, May wants to make sure we’re all on board before the ship goes down.