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.