Theresa May has a difficult set of promises to keep. After slipping into the prime minister’s office in the chaotic aftermath of the “Brexit” vote in June 2016, she has struggled to deliver on the Brexiters’ hopes of wresting full freedom of maneuver back from Brussels, while attempting to reassure the rest of Britain that nothing valuable would be lost in the process. Her vacillation between a “soft” Brexit (i.e., maintaining access to European markets through a sort of membership in all-but-name) and a “hard” Brexit (breaking definitively with European rules and institutions) earned her the unflattering nickname “Theresa Maybe.”
Over 16 million British voters (48.11%) opted to “Remain” in the European Union, and most have grown no more sanguine about leaving now. Even for supporters of Brexit, the romantic dream of restoring full sovereignty to their scepter’d isle has become mired in the prospect of years of grinding negotiations with the very Eurocrats and continental politicians who have always driven them raving mad. If that were not enough, Brexit threatens the continued existence of the United Kingdom itself, by reviving the drive for Scottish independence and complicating the always-delicate balance in Northern Ireland.
Under such circumstances, any British prime minister in her right mind would have been grateful that the next scheduled parliamentary election was not due until 2020, giving her the time and space to develop a coherent policy before facing the voters—or, failing that, at least a few years to enjoy the perquisites of office.
Instead, Theresa Maybe became—at least for a moment—Theresa Decisively. She called a snap election for June 8, voluntarily putting her office and her party’s parliamentary majority up for grabs in a time of great uncertainty. The most astonishing thing about this gambit is that everyone expects it to work.
How to Call a Snap Election
In the U.S., election cycles proceed with the laborious predictability of Newtonian physics, with each office having a fixed, immutable term (two years for the House, four years for the president, six years for each member of the Senate). The various players orbit around each other, knowing precisely when their next clash will be, leading to campaigns that are unimaginably long (though not quite infinite).
The parliamentary system practiced by Britain and most other democratic countries is different. Each parliament has a maximum life span, but typically no minimum. The executive power is not independently elected, but rather depends on the support, at any given moment, of a majority in the parliament. If that majority ceases to exist, on any significant issue, then one of two things must happen: (1) a new executive must be formed that does have the support of a parliamentary majority, or (2) the parliament itself must be replaced, through new elections.
The first option is by far the most frequent solution. It is quicker and easier to replace a leadership team than an entire parliament. By changing the prime minister, shuffling the cabinet, or forming a new coalition of governing parties, a solution can be found to most political impasses.
The second option—the ability to “dissolve” an elected parliament before its normal term has elapsed—is one of the most formidable constitutional powers in any democracy. In the broadest sense, it is the power to renew political authority directly from the source: the voters. In more practical terms, it is a weapon that puts every recalcitrant legislator’s status, salary, and professional future at immediate risk.
Some constitutions are careful to put this power into the hands of an otherwise apolitical or disinterested head of state. In such countries, dissolution is always the last resort, to be used only when all other means have failed to resolve a political deadlock. But others, like Britain, allow the prime minister or the ruling party (who are, by definition, very interested) to order dissolution.
In Politics, Timing Is Everything
In such countries, dissolution is far more frequently used to secure future political advantage than to break deadlocks. The ruling party can time elections according to its own convenience. If the government is riding high, it will often seek a new mandate immediately rather than risk waiting until its term has elapsed, when it might be less popular.
For example, the Conservative Party famously won three elections under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. But for most of her 12-year reign as prime minister, Thatcher and her government were generally unpopular, sometimes remarkably so. The two major positive spikes in Thatcher’s ratings coincided with Britain’s victory against Argentina in the Falklands War (1982), which prompted her to call an early election in 1983, and her second re-election in 1987, when she took advantage of a strong economy. The timing of these election campaigns—each about a year earlier than required—was no coincidence.
By contrast, no one has the power to call a snap election under the U.S. Constitution. So while President George H.W. Bush enjoyed 90% approval ratings in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War (1991), he had to wait for the normal election cycle to run its course. When Bush finally stood for re-election 18 months later, the bloom was off his Desert Storm victory, and an economic downturn set him to be swamped by Bill Clinton.
While the ruling party carefully studies the horizon for signs of cresting popularity or economic turbulence, the opposition can only try to stay afloat. They must always be ready—financially and otherwise—for a sudden plunge into headlong campaigning. They must have their leadership in place, a program largely ready, and a slate of candidates lined up before it starts. The typical 6-8 week snap election campaign is merciless to the unprepared.
Not surprisingly, snap elections give the ruling party a marked advantage. In most cases, the party calling early elections is able to expand or at least maintain its majority. This was the case in the UK in 1983, 1987, 2001, and 2005. By contrast, when the ruling party put off calling an election until the end of its five-year term was near, the results were markedly worse. In 1992, the John Major’s post-Thatcher Conservative government narrowly eked out a win, but was crushed by Tony Blair’s Labour Party five years later. Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, waited until Labour’s third term had nearly expired before calling an election in 2010, whereupon he was soundly defeated. These leaders were not particularly “thick” for failing to call an early election. Rather, they were waiting eagerly for an auspicious moment that never came.
The Acrobatic Flexibility of an Unwritten Constitution
Although snap elections are great fun for the ruling party, they appeared to be history in Britain. After the 2010 election dropped Labour into second place but left the Conservatives short of a majority, each party vied to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s long-time centrist third party. With a rare opportunity to shape the national agenda, the LibDems’ leader, Nick Clegg, chose to align with David Cameron’s Conservatives. Among Clegg’s demands was a guarantee of a fixed five-year parliamentary term. It’s easy to understand why: if the new government proved to be popular, Cameron could call a snap election to secure his own majority and ditch his coalition partner. Clegg wanted to make sure that didn’t happen, and his wish was realized in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011.
No longer could the prime minister trigger a dissolution at his or her whim. According to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, early elections could only be triggered by (1) a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in the government, or (2) a two-thirds vote of Parliament. The idea was that no government would court a vote of no-confidence in itself, and the opposition would always be strong enough to muster one-third of the votes in Parliament to block an opportunistic snap election. The Act was the sort of serious institutional reform that would, in most countries, require a constitutional amendment. But this was Britain, which insists that it has a constitution, while famously failing to ever write it down. All it took was an act of Parliament.
So the LibDems’ place in the Cameron cabinet was secure for five years. Not that it helped them in the end. At the next election in 2015, support for the LibDems collapsed, from 23% of the vote and 62 seats to 8% and 8 seats. Cameron’s Conservatives did well enough to secure a narrow majority of their own, and Britain’s brief experiment with coalition government was over. One factor in Cameron’s surprising win was his promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union within a year. That promise would eventually be his undoing.
Labour’s Love Lost
The more immediate victim of the 2015 election, however, was the Labour Party. Failing to rebound from their 2010 defeat, Labour lost another 26 seats. The party’s winning streak under Tony Blair was an increasingly distant memory. Blair’s support of the Iraq War had eventually destroyed his domestic credibility. His centrist economic policies, though popular in their time, were also now rejected by most of the party’s rank and file. But Labour still had not found a new message to replace Blair’s.
When Labour leader Ed Miliband stepped down, a slate of experienced but predictable candidates lined up to contest the succession. Each was positioned somewhat to the left of Blair’s formula, but not so far as to break entirely with his legacy. Jumping into the race late was a long-time backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn. An MP for over 30 years, the white-bearded Corbyn was a familiar figure, but he had never held cabinet office or a leadership position in the Labour Party. The reasons were not difficult to discern. After Labour’s crushing losses to Ms. Thatcher in the ’80s, the party gradually backed away from its most strident left-wing goals, such as public ownership of industry and unilateral nuclear disarmament, finally returning to power with Blair’s centrist “New Labour” politics in the late ’90s. Corbyn, however, did not move an inch. With remarkable consistency, if not much political success, he remained committed to reviving the left-wing program of “Old Labour” for decades after it seemed dead and buried. Voting against the Labour governments of 1997-2010 more than any other Labour MP, Corbyn often acted as the conscience of a party that had wandered far from its socialist, working-class roots. (Think Billy Bragg, but without the guitar or the clever songs.) But few took Corbyn’s bid for the party leadership seriously in 2015.
A rule change played in his favor, however. For the first time, instead of giving substantial weight to the views of its sitting members of Parliament, the Labour Party based the leadership contest entirely on a popular vote of its entire membership (including “registered supporters” who could join by paying £3). Corbyn had little support among his fellow MPs, but he astonished the British political world by winning 59% of the vote, far outdistancing his three remaining rivals.
As Labour’s grandees struggled to reconcile themselves to Corbyn’s leadership, Cameron’s Conservatives could barely hide their glee. Corbyn, they declared, could never win a general election, and would lead Labour to oblivion.
Brexit (Stage Right)
Despite this good fortune, Cameron was about to fall through a trap door of his own design. He had promised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership for tactical reasons, to hold anti-EU Conservatives in his camp, and to keep the radically pro-Brexit UK Independence Party on the fringe. But Cameron always favored continued membership. He hoped to capitalize on a “Remain” vote to vanquish long-festering divisions in his own party.
Cameron fatally miscalculated the mood of British voters, as well as the likely behavior of his own cabinet ministers. Although most dutifully supported the “Remain” camp, a significant number of others crossed over to “Leave.” Some of these acted out of conviction, but it also seemed like smart play for many ambitious Conservatives—they could win the affection of Brexiters by supporting Leave, then swing back into the fold after Remain’s inevitable victory.
Brexit’s surprise win upset all these calculations. Suddenly, what had seemed like a symbolic vote to uphold British nationhood was going to have real-world consequences, and many of them were ominous. Britain had spent the last 40 years embedding itself in the world’s largest free trade zone, a common market of 500 million persons. The British had to learn to live with the European Union’s often-annoying rules—magnified by the constant agitation of the tabloid press—but they also benefitted from these same rules. Britain attracted billions of dollars of foreign investment as a launching pad to access this zone. London has served as the European Union’s financial center, its largest city, and the most cosmopolitan magnet for its young people. All of this was suddenly at risk.
A less widely foreseen consequence threatened the unity of Britain itself. While England and Wales opted to Leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland strongly voted to Remain. Only a few years removed from narrowly rejecting full independence in a 2014 referendum, Scots awoke to reconsider whether it was riskier to leave the UK—or the EU. Similarly, the delicate peace settlement in Northern Ireland was premised on an open border with the Republic of Ireland as EU member nations. The prospect of a real border once again dividing the island may cause Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland.
Having led Britain into an unforced error of this magnitude, David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister. Oddly, none of the prominent Conservatives who had supported the Leave cause (like Justice Secretary Michael Gove or former London Mayor Boris Johnson) could rally their party behind them. Nor could outspoken Remainers (like Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne). Home Secretary Theresa May emerged as the consensus candidate. May had only given tepid support to Remain during the campaign. Now she vowed to respect the voters’ wishes by following through on Brexit.
At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour fared little better. Corbyn had no great love for the EU—viewing it as a neo-liberal project—and waged only a half-hearted effort on behalf of Remain. After the shocking result, outraged Labour MPs attempted to oust Corbyn from his post. Despite losing a no-confidence motion by a lopsided vote of 172-40, Corbyn refused to resign and insisted that he retained the support of the party at large. Since then, Corbyn has refused to center Labour’s platform on a reversal of the Brexit decision, preferring to wage his battles on other grounds, like expanding the number of bank holidays.
Thus, at this consequential moment, Britain finds itself governed by a prime minister who did little to oppose Brexit, though she privately feared it, but now vows to carry it through, whatever the consequences. Meanwhile, the opposition is led by a man who also nominally opposed Brexit, yet seemed to welcome it, and does nothing to impede its progress.
Call Me Maybe
After months of vacillation and wishful thinking, Theresa May came to grips with the fact that a “soft” Brexit, whereby Britain could maintain most of the benefits of EU membership, was a logical and political impossibility. The EU’s leaders have no reason to make departure from the bloc easy, or to put new forms of à la carte associate membership on the table. Nor would serious Brexiters be satisfied with a deal that left Britain subject to all of Brussels’ rules, but without a voice in its decisions.
So May set her course for a “hard” Brexit, with all the messy uncertainty that entails, and gave formal notice of Britain’s triggering of withdrawal negotiations under Art. 50 of the EU Treaty. Jeremy Corbyn ordered Labour MP’s to vote in favor of authorizing the move.
Despite the difficult (and perhaps impossible) task she now faces, Theresa May has one distinct advantage: she is not Jeremy Corbyn. Britain may have plenty of qualms about what lies ahead, but Corbyn has managed to present himself as an even riskier alternative.
For months, May denied that she was even considering an early election. But with the Conservatives enjoying a 20-point advantage over Labour in the polls, and nothing but difficulty ahead, the logic of an early election became irresistible. May explained her reversal as a need to unify Britain around her Brexit strategy. Tony Blair countered that the move was designed to “close down” opportunities for British voters to reconsider Brexit. Both explanations really amount to the same thing.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act proved to be a flimsy obstacle. Although Labour had more than enough votes to block May’s call for an early dissolution, doing so would have been tantamount to admitting that they had no coherent program to offer as an alternative to the Conservatives, or were simply afraid to face the voters. Those are admissions no opposition party can ever afford to make.
In most democracies, a controversial decision like Brexit, made by a slender majority, and perhaps without a full understanding of its consequences, would remain at the center of debate for some time. (Witness, for example, the continued battles over health-care reform in the U.S., seven years after the passage of Obamacare.) The 48% of voters who opposed Brexit would normally be a tempting target for an opposition party like Labour, which has struggled to clear 30% of the vote in the last two elections. But Corbyn’s ambivalent stance on the EU, coupled with a general reluctance to question the wisdom of voters as expressed in a referendum, renders him unable to revive the Remain cause. Only the Liberal Democrats clearly stand for a reversal of Brexit. But the better the LibDems do, the more votes they are likely to drain from Labour, allowing the Conservatives to grab even more seats under Britain’s first-past-the-post, plurality-rules system. Through a series of improbable events, Brexit has become almost a fait accompli.
Is there a Future in England’s Dreaming?
Pro-Brexit voters are hopeful that it will lead to a kind of national rebirth, a revival of the independent, self-confident Britain that dominated the world stage for centuries. It is more likely, however, that future historians will view Brexit as a fruitless, self-defeating gesture—and perhaps the catalyst for the rapid dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. The remnants of this vast and mighty nation, England and Wales, may linger on in lopsided union, the Serbia and Montenegro of an unexpected northern Yugoslavia. But their slide from the second rank of powers into the third will seem, from the perspective of decades or centuries, to have been both inevitable and irreversible.
In truth, Brexit and its consequences could have been avoided—and could still be reversed, even at this late date. David Cameron and Theresa May will bear considerable responsibility for their decisions—tactically clever and strategically disastrous as they have been—as well as a Conservative Party that should have known better than to follow its myopic leaders over a cliff. Nevertheless, a heavy burden will also rest on the Labour Party, whose long-running leadership crisis has left it incapable of contesting the June 8 election or arresting Britain’s fall.
It is ironic to think what might have been. With American leadership in turmoil and uncertainty after Donald Trump’s election, Britain could have had an opportunity to reassert itself on the world stage: as a bastion of democratic values, as a bridge between Europe and America, and as a nation with a history of resourceful and constructive statecraft. It remains all of these things. But for the next decade, at least, the British will be preoccupied with the fallout from their decision to go it alone. And the fault won’t be in their stars.