Setting out to fail and controlling the consequences: the real purpose of the 2017 General Election

Since Theresa May’s Eureka moment while walking in North Wales the public have been told, relentlessly, that the reason she decided to break her many promises that there would be no early general election was because a victory for the Tories would strengthen her negotiating position in the forthcoming talks with the EU 27. This claim has been much disputed, of course, not least by some of those on the EU side who will be involved in the negotiations: some of whom have subsequently been accused of trying to influence the outcome of the election by daring to utter an opinion that runs counter to May’s and her team of Brexiteers. As the Guardian reported, she is never one to miss an opportunity to further ram home a point, slogan or soundbite, however dubious the connection with her underlying argument. May was at it again on May 8th. She said:

‘Yesterday a new French president was elected. He was elected with a strong mandate which he can take as a strong position in the negotiations. In the UK we need to ensure we’ve got an equally strong mandate and an equally strong negotiating position. And every vote for me and my team will strengthen my hand in those Brexit negotiations.’

While it’s interesting to note, as the Guardian did, that initially May said, ‘Conservative Party’ but quickly corrected herself to ‘me and my team’ – for reasons deemed to carry some electoral advantage, presumably – the latest turn in May’s mission to present herself as the 21st century version of the Iron Lady led me to return to some thoughts I had on the real purpose of the 2017 general election.

Initially I shared the view of Channel 4 News’ Michael Crick and others that the decision to cut and run was not unconnected to the police investigations into alleged breaches of election expense rules from the 2015 general election. It appeared likely that where court cases were launched and the outcome was guilty then fines and/or byelections would be triggered, with the potential negative impact this might have on the government’s majority in Parliament.

Over the days following May’s surprise volte face, and with reports emerging of the less than positive outcome of the PM’s dinner with Jean Claude Juncker, another hypothesis for an early election began to form in my mind. This has two related elements. The first is based on recognition of a not uncommon feature of human behaviour, and one I’ve witnessed on a fair few occasions and may well have practiced occasionally too: getting your excuses in early when you think it likely that you’re going to do less well or even fail at something that you have claimed you will do well at. In the situation May and her Brexit team find themselves this is an understandable tactic to adopt. After all, reports over past months from a range of authoritative sources show how complex, difficult and time consuming negotiations on this scale will be. No amount of denunciation by May and her team, or rubbishing by the Brexit supporting press and others makes that less so.

Of course, when the Brexit process first began some or many of the key players may have honestly believed that it was possible to have a quick and easy and relatively painless divorce from the EU – after all, we know that ignorance of key facts, such as what a customs union is and how it differs from a single market – became apparent relatively quickly. And it’s also likely, and understandable perhaps, given government ministers often lack knowledge of the detail of their brief, that key players, such as Davis, Fox and Johnson (and May) had no idea how the supply and production chains of major multi-national companies operating from the UK traverse back and forth across the various countries of the EU. Or indeed, how complicated and deeply intertwined are the many legal, institutional and regulatory bonds between EU countries that have developed over decades.

Additionally, ignorance of broader global trade relations may well have been at the root of suggestions that a host of markets outside the EU were ripe and ready to take the place of those we are likely to exit or have more restricted access to when we leave the EU. Leaving aside the fact that many of these markets – such as cars to SE Asia and Australia and New Zealand – are already supplied by factories that multi-national companies operate in other regions of the world, the potential for the increased export of, say, cave-aged Welsh Cheddar Cheese to India or anywhere else around the world was never, ever, likely to compensate for the loss of the export benefits we enjoy with the EU.

So, while ignorance of the reality of 21st century production and trade relations may have been understandable and acceptable at the start of the Brexit process it is now beyond credible that anyone in government involved in this process – from the Prime Minister down – is not aware of them now. Furthermore, anyone who has even the most fleeting experience of multi-party negotiations that contain any degree of complexity knows that it’s laughable to maintain – let alone actively promote – the view that divorce from the EU, even with transitional arrangements, can be accomplished between now and any date in 2019. They cannot. And stating that fact has nothing to do with being a Remainer, Remoaner or any other term that the majority of the press and government love to throw at anyone who dares to speak truth to power over the Brexit process. Stating Brexit can be done in two years is Fake News. Stating it can’t is fact.

And so, I come to the second element of my hypothesis for the real reason for calling a snap general election that will, on almost everyone’s count, result in an large Tory majority. May and her team know negotiations will fail on the terms and over the timescale they want: hence their many efforts to constuct a narrative that accepts that and gets in their excusses for why now. Various scenarios flow from that, one of which is now much hyped by the anti-EU ideologues in the Brexit press: a hard Brexit where May and her “team” (i.e. the Tory party) simply walk away from the table.

The consequences of such action – even if on a limited scale or for a limited time – are potentially dire, hence May’s own admission in her speech announcing the election that the ‘consequences will be serious’ for all of the citizens of the UK (not true of course, as the wealthy will be less impacted, as is always the case).

So, to get to the true reason for calling a snap election we need to recognise that a worst case Brexit scenario is actually highly likely, and think about what the outcomes might be. Economic and social upheaval and unrest are highly likely as the Brexit supporting public (as well, of course, as those remainers), wake up and realise they’ve been taken for mugs – again! Domestic policy making – which is already almost completly ignored in favour of Brexit related work – will go into meltdown. And longstanding and fundamental issues, from the NHS to the ongoing scandal of air-quality in London and most major UK cities will erupt.

Where does that leave a government with a very small majority and an election due the year after the population have been told over and over that the UK will leave the EU and only good will follow from this? We need to compare that scenario to one where the government has a large majority and no election to worry about for three years, and thus has all the power required to take whatever steps necessary to control and contain the many negative outcomes and consequence of a hard (or indeed any kind of) Brexit. And then ask yourself a simple question: which scenario would you chose? That was the Eureka moment that May had on her Welsh walking holiday and given what appear to be her authoritarian instincts and her party’s disdain for anything other than managed democracy, we – the ordinary citizens of the UK – should be very, very, worried about where that takes our country.


  1. Peter May -

    I regret to say I think you are spot on. I’m coming fast to the conclusion that May is worse than Thatcher. At least Thatcher had a few moderates in her cabinet. May seems to have purged hers. And at least with Thatcher it was largely what you saw was what you got. May seems a devious, manipulative control freak. No wonder she refuses to have a ‘leader’s debate’.

  2. Sean Danaher -


    Thanks. I have tried to put pen to paper a few times so to speak and have been so terrified by the current situation in British politics I have been unable to get words down on paper. I agree entirely that your hypothesis is very credible.

    There are many contrasting views of the EU two of which are, that it is:

    A ruthlessly efficient neoliberal organisation intent on preserving the interest of German banks in particular and ready to crush small nations such as Ireland and Greece if they fall off line.

    An incompetent sclerotic failing organisation hidebound by “red tape” and with an idealism unsuited to the real world of resurgent nation states.

    The reality is of course somewhere between the two or even something entirely different.

    Without wanting to return to the Brexit referendum, its clear that there was misguided optimism on the leave side. Prof Michael Dougan used the phrase “dishonesty on an industrial scale” which may be harsh; however it was clear to some of us at least that Brexit would vastly more difficult than the naive assertions of the leave side. Also it was very difficult to see how Brexit would be good for the UK, economically, educationally, culturally or diplomatically.

    Complexity: To call the complexity Byzantine is to underestimate the difficulty by at least an order of magnitude. A bespoke deal will take a decade to negotiate.

    Preparedness: A good source here is David Allen Green’s Brexit by timetable pts. 1-3 in the FT. The EU looks ruthlessly efficient, prepared and united and has assembled what has has been described as a “dream team” of the brightest and best negotiating on their side. The UK by contrast looks amateurish and shambolic.

    Imbalance: There is a misguided assumption amongst some UK people that the EU needs the UK far more than visa versa. The opposite is the case. Ireland (which I think is the most exposed country) for example exports c 60% of its goods/services to the EU26, c 20% to the US and c 13% to the UK. Indeed Ireland exports more to Belgium than the UK. The UK exports approximately 50% of its goods and services to the EU27.

    Mood: Quite patient diplomacy works well in the EU. The only surprise in the EU position is the centrality of the Irish border and NI in discussion. The back story is that the Irish pushed very hard for this behind the scene and are quietly pleased of the prominence in which NI has been put and also the establishment of the DDR precedent. Belligerent flag waving and nationalistic fervour is likely to be counter productive. This will cause the EU27 to look at the UK as an external threat and become more united.

    The problem is that nothing has happened on the EU side which was not absolutely predictable before the 23rd of June apart from the centrality of the Irish question (though I for one expected this to be the case). It is extraordinary how this has enfolded in the media which seems obsessed by Westminster and is extraordinary insular for such a supposedly global looking nation.

    Where do we go from here?

    it is clear that the Brexit negotiations will not go well from the UKs point of view. The UK will effectively have to choose between what is being offered by the EU or no deal. A more conciliatory approach by May might have worked, rather than a sabre rattling, Thatcher mark II, approach which goes down well in the Tory shires which will do nothing but unite the EU27 and make them even more determined to ensure the UK gets the worst of any deal.

    So in short you are spot on the money. May has allowed unrealistic expectations to run riot and it is difficult to see how disappointment wont turn to disillusionment and anger. Much better for May to have a majority so she can go on till 2022, by which time other things might be on the public’s mind.

    1. Ian Game -

      Good analysis from all the above, thanks to all for taking the time to put your thoughts on paper (so to speak).

      I think though that the power of the press will stifle any unrest in the population by blaming failure on the EU side. However, I despair of any solution or way out of this mess, the clear headed informed commentary will be swamped by jingoistic calls for Johnny foreigner to be repatriated. It has already happened with knuckle dragging low life beating up people who ‘look’ or ‘sound’ foreign and this is nothing to do with skin colour either.

      It does not help that the so called impartial BBC news and radio are very biased towards the Tories and trot out the stock phrases such as ‘..politics of envy’, it makes me quite sick when debate has sunk that low.

    2. Ivan Horrocks -

      Thanks for the comments, Sean. Re the ‘Irish question’ this struck me as important from the outset, perhaps because I did some work in Croatia in the transition period before they joined the EU and I know that there was much discussion about what would happen to the status of boarders they shared with other countries as their borders became the EU’s border. Consequently, I could never see how it was possible for the border arrangements between Eire and NI to remain as they had when both countries were part of the EU. Anyway, we’ll see what President May (as Michael Crick referred to her yesterday) comes back with.

  3. Ian Steveson -

    I saw an amazon review of Daniel Hannan’s book: ‘What Next? How to get the best from Brexit.”
    It seems he envisages a sort of British Singapore. A version of the extreme ‘free market’ vision. Government would be de-centralised and the house of Lords abolished. The future he envisages is a low tax, supply side economy.
    I suspect this was the long term aim all along. With a damaged economy, these measures could be introduced as the only option and without the necessity of placing them before the public in a general election.
    To be cynical, a coup against the remaining aspects of social democracy.

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        Well said, Charles. I was lucky enough to have Singapore as my patch when I worked at a previous university so visited a few times and had the pleasure of teaching a fair few students, and one thing that stood out was that the state was involved in pretty much everything – although not always obviously.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        Many years ago when I was at Leeds Poly a former colleague who took early retirement went to work in Singapore. He was deported as “persona non grata” about 6 months later. Crime: organising a protest against a substantial rise in rent of the Lecturers residences. Ivan is right.

      3. Ian Steveson -

        Yes, indeed. I read something similar in one of Ha Joon Chang’s excellent books.

  4. Charles Adams -

    Excellent piece. Yes it means another 3 years but Brexit will fail and I cannot see the Conservative’s recovering from the disaster they are engineering. Gradually a credible centrist opposition will emerge from the 48%, those that want decent health and education, clean energy and clean air.

  5. card -

    Don’t forget the Scottish question. A ‘no deal’ outcome, following two years of disregarding the Scottish Government’s position whenever it diverges from that of the UK Government, will be a guaranteed recruiting sergeant for a vote for independence.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Indeed; Scotland has a get out option. I think it is highly likely that a 2nd referendum would vote for independence given a “no deal” outcome.
      Interestingly a large number of PP readers think a deal is likely looking at the outcome from our poll on a train crash brexit. Maybe Progressive Pulse has attracted the attention of some committed Brexiteers?

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        I noted from the visit figures that for a short time we got a lot of visitors via an arch Tory’s web site, Sean, and a sworn enemy of Richard Murphy. That probably explains it.

      2. Sean Danaher -

        Richard Murphy is the most dangerous Chartered Accountant in the UK 😉 and I thought they were supposed to be boring!

  6. Adrian D. -

    Seems that your argument has had some support with the not entirely unsurprising Establishmenty CPS decision not to prosecute any sitting Tory MPs or Agents for the election expenses fraud.

    The CPS statement is really quite staggering – it wwas illegal (hence the fine), but because Tory party HQ said it was national spending, they can’t prosecute the individuals. I’m amazed as to how anyone could reasonably consider dozens of local hotels room as anything other than local spending – the battle bus is a red-herring.

    1. Helen Heenan -

      If we can’t trust the CPS then we are in much worse trouble than I feared. The CPS has to balance the interest of justice against the probability of obtaining a conviction. I sincerely hope that the decision making in this case was based on those considerations, and not politicised.

  7. Mark Crown -

    Compelling Ivan, compelling.

    In order to pull this off, the media will need to be on-board to help May hold the line and support whatever she decides to do in the name of ‘stability’.

    To me it seems highly likely that Murdoch’s Sky takeover may well happen now as May will need all the help she can get on this twisted venture.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Ofcom is independent, as you know, Mark. But…I agree.

  8. Mark Crown -

    You make a valid point of course about Ofcom Ivan.

    I think I was responding to the CPS today saying that they believe that the Tories have no case to answer for the 2015 election expenses ‘scandal’ or non-scandal (describing them as errors more or less).

    I wish I could have more faith in my country’s institutions but it is becoming increasingly hard Ivan especially with a control freak at the helm.

  9. Mike Parr -

    One element missing. Hard Breixt will see a significant (100ks) number of Uk citizens returning (unwillingly) to the UK. Some of them will be very very unhappy. Some of them might be inclined towards “direct action” – I leave it to imagination as to what form this could take. May could do well to reflect on that. Brits that return might not be the tolerant “oh alright then” Brits that seem to inhabit the spetic isle. Many/most of them are intelligent & highly motivated.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Hi Mike
      the data is not very good but I think the numbers are greatest in Spain (c 310,000), Ireland (c 260,00), France (c 200,000) and Germany (c 100,000) have the largest populations of “expats.”

      I’m most worried about the Spanish community. I’ve seen other figures that say the numbers of people who overwinter is much higher, with estimates approaching 1 M. These are often C2DE people who have sold everything in the UK to retire to the sun and rely heavily on free Spanish health care. (this is one of the great imbalances as there are many fewer Spanish in the UK and tend to be young, healthy and be a nett positive to the NHS). They are already struggling with the c 20% devaluation of Stirling, will find it difficult to sell property (apparently the type of property they own is of little interest to the Spanish), won’t be able to afford private healthcare and returning home is near impossible as housing in the UK is now unaffordable.

      I’m sure Ireland will do a deal if at all possible. Retirees to France tend to be wealthier but in France and Germany there are many people of working age who will indeed be hacked off big time!

      1. Geoff -

        You’re on the money with this comment Sean.
        I would add there is a very well coordinated resistance, now Europe wide, of pro remain/anti-Brexit groups such as RIFT, who we are involved with. Well connected and with the ear of numerous MEP’s and members of the Lords. It’s worth having a look at our website which can be found here –

        Interesting article Ivan and one many of us living in Europe would completely agree with

      2. Geoff -

        We are also shamed by the Brexiteers manner of conducting themselves, many Europeans are slightly bewildered by the UK government and Brexit as a whole!

        Michel Barnier the EU Chief Negotiator for Brexit has laid out their approach in this speech, delivered in Florence on 5th May, it should give us all hope. The Europeans are definitely the “grown up’s in the room.”

        Some of you may not have seen or heard it.

      3. Geoff -

        I refer you to Michael Barniers’ speech below.

      4. Sean Danaher -

        Geoff I will add your Remain in France link to our “useful links” tab. I’m sure there must be a similar group in Germany?

      5. Geoff -

        Cheers Sean

      6. Geoff -

        There were more than 16 million people who voted against Brexit, the press and politicians are not mentioning this any longer. If everyone of those people voted for a party other than the Tories in the general election we would have a very good chance of either stopping Brexit altogether or have a Brexit which would at least benefit the british people more than the hard Brexit May will undoubtedly now go for which will only benefit the wealthy.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Peter, thanks for this as I wouldn’t look at the Standard. To me the most important paragraphs are the last two. I fear however, that the suggestion in the first – which is pragmatic and sensible – will be ignored by May and her team of tin-ears in favour of the second. Furthermore -and even worse – they’ll probably ignore anything and everything that Varousakis has to say despite his intimate knowledge of the inner workings and power relations of negotating with the EU he’s a leftie.

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