The 2016 referendum result left a yawning accountability gap.
A government which had campaigned for a Remain result was left to implement a vote for the UK to Leave. The Prime Minister which had chosen to hold a referendum resigned, with a new Prime Minister emerging not from a general election but from an internal leadership election within the Conservative Party. The governing party’s manifesto commitment to maintaining the UK within a Single Market has been abandoned by the new Prime Minister in her negotiating objectives for the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
Meanwhile, the Parliament that enacted the EU referendum legislation doesn’t know how to hold the government to account for its implementation of the referendum result. Parliamentarians would not themselves, by and large, have voted for Brexit and many – including within the governing party itself – do not support the ‘hard’ Brexit being pursued by the government. MPs find themselves pushed and pulled between the competing forces of their own beliefs, party discipline and the preferences of their constituents.
It is time for a new government and a new Parliament. Theresa May has announced her intention to introduce into Parliament a motion that if passed by two-thirds of MPs will allow for an early election on 8 June 2017. It will be a defining election politically and constitutionally.
Politically, for the Conservatives, Theresa May’s hand will be strengthened in Brexit negotiations if she wins a general election. The timing is ideal as no real Brexit negotiations will get underway over the next few months so instead of kicking her heels, the PM is seeking to augment her domestic political position with a view to using that to her advantage once EU negotiations get underway. Importantly, were the Conservatives to increase their majority in the Commons, the PM would also be in a better position at the end of the negotiations knowing that the risk of parliamentary veto would have all but gone away. Election time and Brexit time dovetail very neatly for the Conservatives.
As for the other UK parties, this is the one and only time to seek to either stop Brexit entirely or to try and create a consensus about what sort of Brexit a future Prime Minister should seek. The Liberal Democrats should be the primary beneficiaries of this election in picking up seats from Labour in Remain constituencies like Cambridge which Labour took from the Lib Dems in 2015 and which they stand no chance of retaining in an election in June. The Lib Dems will also hope to repeat their bye-election victory in Richmond by picking up some seats from Conservatives. Nonetheless, unless the Lib Dems are in a position to form a coalition government with other Brexit-opposing parties, it is difficult to see how they can prevent Brexit happening.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a June election will be anything but apocalyptic for the Labour Party. It may be the moment when Labour finally rids itself of its failing leadership but it will also come at an enormous price in terms of its future capacity to survive and win elections. Disaffected centre-Left voters will drift towards other parties including the Liberal Democrats.
Perhaps surprisingly, this may also be the moment when the UKIP flush is finally busted. Having failed to secure electoral success at general elections in the past – including 2015 – UKIP may well find itself with no MPs whatsoever in a new Parliament.
But the obvious political and constitutional threat lies with Scotland and this is where Theresa May is making her biggest and riskiest gamble. If the SNP were to repeat the sort of electoral success they saw in 2015 – returning 56 out of 59 MPs – on an electoral mandate for a second independence referendum, then it becomes difficult to see what can or could stop Scotland separating from the UK. The Prime Minister is gambling that the SNP’s electoral surge has peaked. But it is hard to imagine that an election in June will wipe out the SNP’s dominance among Scotland’s MPs even if it loses the odd seat here and there. By calling this election, Theresa May is potentially sacrificing the union between Scotland the rest of the UK in the hope of strengthening not just her Brexit negotiating hand but also her own political position and that of her party. Rightly or wrongly, if the complaint in Scotland has often been that voters end up with a government and policies for which they do not vote, an election on 8 June may simply confirm that impression, making the case for, and likelihood of, independence all the greater.
Election time, Brexit time, independence time.