Madrid: It was Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who coined a phrase that may yet well haunt that country’s second woman to hold that office: “The Lady’s not for turning.” Barely nine months into her tenure at 10 Downing Street, Theresa May has turned — completely — and has called a snap general election for June 8.
That election will be about one central and over-riding issue: Brexit.
Ever since former Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold a referendum on Britain’s place in or out of the 28-member European Union, the 45.3 million voters have been bitterly divided over their relationship with Europe and their place in the world. That June 23 ballot and a largely unpredicted and unexpected result to sever ties with Brussels set in motion a series of unpredicted and unparalleled events that saw Cameron’s career end in shambles, Scotland determined to hold a second vote on its independence, dejected Remain supporters claiming that the referendum wasn’t binding, and millions of Britons left wondering just what did they actually mean by casting their ballots as they did.
Come June 8, all of the disgruntled Remain supporters, confused voters who wanted more money for their crumbling National Health Service, and adamant Brexiteers, will get a last and definitive opportunity to decide on just how they want their government to proceed. Or if at all.
In the weeks that followed that June 23 referendum, May became Prime Minister by default after the Leave’s main protagonists essentially refused to grasp that poisoned chalice created by the Leave victory. Few in serious and senior political circles saw the result coming, nor the resignation of Cameron, nor the disintegration of the main opposition Labour Party.
Under Britain’s Fixed Term Parliament’s Act, May needs a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to call a new election before 2020. Cameron, had eked out a surprise majority win barely two years ago. A week is a long time in politics, and given the events of this past 23 months in the UK, it’s an eternity in which the eternal question of the EU has divided that United Kingdom as never before.
For months, May has refused to call a general election, saying that her Conservative party’s mandate was sufficient, and that the subsequent Brexit referendum was also unequivocal.
In introducing her government’s first budget in February, she was forced to commit a serious about face, undermining her finance minister, Philip Hammond — the Chancellor of the Exchequer — when he attempted to undermine a key Conservative election promise not to raise employment contributions on the self-employed and business owners. That U-turn took two days.
After coming to office on July 13 and uttering appeasing words about building consensus in the aftermath of the divisions of the Brexit referendum, last month May set the terms for formally activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, making it clear in an eight-page letter to the EU leadership that her Britain was seeking a hard, swift and decisive divorce from the rest of Europe. That decision has set the clock running on a two-year negotiation period with the other 27 EU states. May’s U-turn on a soft Brexit took eight months to shape.
And by calling the election for June 8, May has turned once more. Already, Labour and the Liberal-Democrats have said they will support the general election call and vote with May’s party to overturn that Fixed Term Parliament Act.
But while those Westminster-focused parties support the election, they are also opening a Pandora’s Box on the very future of the United Kingdom itself.
Scotland’s separatists will welcome the election as an opportunity to make the case on calling a second independence referendum. In the Brexit vote, 62 per cent of Scottish voters cast ballots to Remain in the EU. Since then, Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has been pushing for May to recognise the will of Scots. It’s a case that has fallen on May’s deaf ears.
And in Northern Ireland, where 55 per cent of voters opted to Remain, the general election call will add new momentum for Irish nationalists to push for continued membership of the EU — by unity with the Republic of Ireland.
And in Wales, where a majority also voted to Remain, it will push Plaid Cymru to push for greater devolved powers to the regional assembly there at a minimum.
It’s a gamble that May is willing to take in her quest for a stronger hand in dealing with Europe. There are 45.3 million reasons come June 8 why voters will agree — or not — with the Lady.