London - With her decision
to call an election in June, Theresa May becomes the second consecutive
UK prime minister to take a gamble with Brexit. Her decision need not
prove as disastrous as David Cameron’s, however - especially if she
runs the right kind of campaign.
May has reason to ask voters for her own mandate as leader of the
government. Recall that she succeeded Cameron, who was forced to resign
last year after voters approved Brexit.
Up until then, the Conservative
government, including May, had favored remaining in the European Union (EU).
After the country voted to leave, its task under new leadership was to
negotiate a separation on the best possible terms. In principle that
justifies an early election, and May could have saved herself some
political grief by not promising, as she did, that there wouldn’t be
But asking for a mandate does not give her the right to shut down
opposition to the government’s approach to Brexit. May says the country
is coming together, but Westminster is not. Her critics in parliament
are making her task more difficult: The point of the election, she
implies, is to shut them up.
The country is, in fact, bitterly divided over Brexit. And the
problem with the opposition’s stance on Brexit is not that it exists,
but that it has been too angry and bewildered to exert any useful
Brexit is happening. The country has voted to leave the EU and formal
notice has now been served on the other members. But the full
consequences of this choice are still much in doubt, and will depend in
part on the demands the UK makes during the exit talks.
- including the country’s so-called red lines on issues such as
immigration and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice -
should not be hoisted out of the political realm. And by the way,
whatever the election’s outcome, they won’t be. May is wrong to want
this, and wrong to think she can get it.
Why Britain voted to quit the EU
The best result would be an election in which the government’s goals
for Brexit are tested and come into clearer focus. If May’s tactical
calculation is correct, a show of strong support for that position might
then allow her to deal with the EU more confidently.
prospect of an electoral contest might also channel her critics’
arguments in more productive directions - accepting that Brexit will
happen, and concentrating on winning the most favourable terms.
The election will serve a valuable purpose, in other words, if it
makes Britain a little more pragmatic and a little less divided. But as
Cameron discovered, votes don’t always promote consensus, and they don’t
always go as planned.
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