Few people saw any of this coming.
British Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that she intends to hold a general election on June 8 has sent shock waves across Europe. Speaking in front of 10 Downing Street, May indicated that Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership following the EU referendum. She also spelled out the reasons as to why she took the momentous decision, explaining that:
“The country is coming together but Westminster is not.”
Which is not strictly true.
That Brexit has left turmoil in its wake is without question. The referendum itself resulted in a near-tie break with 52 percent of the country voting to leave the EU and 48 percent of the country wishing to remain. The vote was, however, unevenly distributed across the entire UK; Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain, as did London. Renewed calls for Scottish independence in lieu of the country’s desire to remain a full member of the EU were rejected by May earlier last month. Meanwhile, recent polls suggest that Brits have changed their mind over Brexit.
Which is no surprise. The leave campaign managed to renege on almost all of the promises they made just hours after the final results were tallied.
May, however, was correct in one thing — Westminster is indeed divided.
A House Divided
For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘Westminster’ is a catch-all euphemism for the entire UK government. Like Capitol Hill, it is named after the location in which power tends to be concentrated. The Houses of Parliament, along with Downing Street and most government ministries are clustered around the 11th century Westminster Abbey.
Hence the name.
Since the UK operates under a system of secret ballots, no definitive answer can be given as to how politicians themselves voted during the referendum. However, one poll by the Press Association found that 480 MPs voted Remain to just 159 in the Leave camp.
For most of the political intelligentsia then, the decision to remain in the EU was a no-brainer.
Which is something of a problem for Theresa May.
Parliamentary democracy is quite different to the presidential system most Americans are used to. To begin with, the Prime Minister is not directly elected. During a General election the 650 constituencies across the nation vote for individual members of parliament or M.Ps.
The leader of the party with the most M.Ps generally gets to form the government. The actual leadership of the party, however, is handled by internal party mechanisms. This is why when former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned on June 24, 2016, it was left to his own party to decide who his replacement would be.
They chose Theresa May.
Such mid-term switching of Prime Ministers is not uncommon. Margaret Thatcher was replaced by John Major in 1990 and Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in 2007. Still, such leaders are often hampered by a perceived lack of mandate.
After all, during the last General Election, British voters chose David Cameron’s vision, not May’s.
All of which seems to have led May to the inevitable conclusion that she needs to hold an election. Although Parliament sees the need to respect the Brexit referendum result they have less enthusiasm for May’s personal vision of the divorce. Many would prefer to adopt what’s known as a Soft Brexit where the UK leaves the club but holds on to many of its internal trappings.
Until recently the British constitution mandated that a general election has to be called at least once every five years. The Prime Minster was however allowed to call one at any time within that five-year window.
They usually chose to do so only when they were riding high in opinion polls.
The Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 changed all that. Under this new arrangement, general elections are set to occur on the first Thursday of May in 2020, 2025 and so on. To trigger an early election, a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons is now required. As such, May will need the support of both her own party and the main opposition party led by Labour leader Jerry Corbyn.
It’s virtually unthinkable that he would block the call for an early election.
What is less certain is what this means for Brexit. Few political parties will wish to reverse the position of the referendum itself but a switch in government could radically alter the terms of the exit. There is even the possibility of calling for a second referendum. Only this time it could be sold to the public based on facts rather than lies.
Such a move would be a blow to Russian president Vladimir Putin who seeks to destabilize Europe and to President Donald Trump who has adopted Putin’s European strategy almost word for word.
For reasons as of yet unknown.
Early opinion polls suggest that May is set to win the election. A recent poll gave her a 21 point lead over Labour. Still, if there’s one thing that can be learned from 21st-century politics it’s that nothing is sacred, nothing is set in stone.
Featured image from YouTube video.