British voters are getting one more chance to weigh in on Brexit—and prime minister Theresa May.
When May took office as prime minister last July after David Cameron resigned, her political prospects didn’t look great. She was replacing a leader who had seen his own popularity plummet as he tried and failed to keep Britain in the European Union. Her Conservative Party, with a narrow majority in parliament, was deeply divided, and prior to taking power she hadn’t even supported the signature policy—Brexit—she was tasked with implementing as PM. It didn’t help her cause much that the Brexit movement’s leaders had promised British voters an outcome—that the U.K. could regain full control of its borders and still maintain unfettered access to European markets—that’s probably impossible to achieve.
Nine months later, May is looking a lot stronger as she announced today that she’s planning to hold a snap parliamentary election on June 8. The move is a surprise and also a flip-flop from May, who had said multiple times that she wouldn’t call an early election, but the politics of it make sense. The Conservatives’ narrow majority in parliament has meant that May has been under pressure from backbenchers in her own party over both Brexit issues and controversial domestic legislation. Given that parliament will have a final veto over the deal that May strikes with Brussels, a stronger majority in parliament would improve her bargaining power in negotiations over Brexit terms since parliament would be more likely approve whatever she brought back.
She has reason to be confident that she’ll get that majority. The Conservatives have a sizeable lead in recent polls—around 40 percent compared to 27 percent for the disorganized and unpopular Labour Party. Though the prime minister is not directly elected, it can’t hurt the Tories’ chances that May is the most popular politician in the country.
It also helps May that many of the doom and gloom predictions about Brexit now look a bit overblown. While Cameron warned that Britain would be plunged into a recession if Brexit passed, in fact, the economic picture for Britain is largely unchanged in recent months. This doesn’t mean there won’t be serious consequences for the British economy in the future, particularly if British companies lose access to the common market, but Brexit opponents, who are now May opponents, clearly need to change their sales pitch.
Still, May’s move is risky. The election is likely to be a referendum on her approach to EU negotiations, which may not be the approach that many of the very slim majority of Brits who favored Brexit thought they were voting for—something Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could potentially take advantage of if it could ever get its act together. British elections have also become very hard to predict, with traditional party loyalties breaking down, the rise of new populist challengers like the UK Independence Party, and the increasingly strong Scottish National Party. The Conservatives weren’t expected to win a majority at all in the close-fought 2015 election. The Brexit victory last summer also caught many experts by surprise.
May’s strategy to get the strongest support system in place makes sense, but its success is hardly guaranteed, and if she’s weakened or defeated in the vote, it will likely change the British government’s approach to its negotiations with Europe yet again.