Theresa May’s snap election: Smart, risky or cynical?

Al Jazeera speaks to three analysts about the reasons for May’s surprise move and the vote’s impact on Brexit talks.

It’s official. Britain’s members of parliament have overwhelmingly backed a surprise call by Prime Minister Theresa May for a general election on June 8.

The snap poll comes as the UK prepares for crucial negotiations on leaving the European Union.


Voting intentions: 
Conservatives: 46 percent 
Labour: 25 percent 
Liberal Democrats: 12 percent 

ICM/Guardian poll of 1,000 people   – April 18, after May’s announcement

Voting intentions:
Conservatives: 44 percent
Labour: 23 percent
Liberal Democrats: 12 percent
UK Independence Party: 10 percent

Who would make better PM?
Theresa May: 50 percent
Jeremy Corbyn: 14 percent
Don’t know: 36 percent

YouGov/Times poll – April 12-13, 2017

May is hoping to increase the parliamentary majority for her ruling Conservatives, strengthening her negotiating position ahead of tough talks with the EU over the Brexit process.

She has previously said that she will seek a “hard Brexit”, insisting it was necessary to make a clean break and not opt for anything that “leaves us half-in, half-out”.

Shortly after May announced the snap polls call, the EU was quick to react by stating it expects full negotiations to start in June as planned.

Recent opinion polls put the Conservatives about 20 points ahead of Labour, the main opposition party led by Jeremy Corbyn.

With Britons now set to go to the polls again 12 months after voting for Brexit in a referendum, Al Jazeera spoke to three analysts to take their views about the latest twist in UK politics, the reasons for May’s surprise move and the impact of the upcoming election on the Brexit negotiations.

Victoria Honeyman, lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds  

May is expecting to sizeably increase her majority, and all the opinion polls suggest that that is true.

Even if you argue that opinion polls have had some very difficult times over the past year or so, it’s looking like the gap between the two parties is so enormous that May may double, or even quadruple, her majority – if some of the polls are to believed.

OPINON: UK’s snap elections – The Corbyn factor

Corbyn is really fighting for his political life. He has pinned his leadership to the fact that even if his own MPs don’t particularly like him, the British public do and they will vote for him. This is the time that he has actually to test that bearing … and all of the opinion polls suggest that that is simply not going to happen. If Labour have a bad night, and the expectation is that they will, then Corbyn will be expected to resign.

May said holding an election in June, rather than as scheduled in 2020, will give the country 'certainty and stability' as it negotiates its departure from the EU [Stefan Wermuth/Reuters]
May said holding an election in June, rather than as scheduled in 2020, will give the country ‘certainty and stability’ as it negotiates its departure from the EU [Stefan Wermuth/Reuters]

There is no way that the Brexit decision can be wheeled back, certainly not easily or bloodlessly, so realistically that issue is off the table.

What is on the table is what that kind of Brexit is going to look like – if May gets a whole batch of right-wing, very Brexit-friendly MPs as part of her new majority, it may well be that she ends up with a very hard Brexit. If they are more relaxed, if they are more central figures it may well be she doesn’t get that such a hard Brexit and she can be a little bit more central in what she wants.

Dennis Novy, associate professor of economics at the University of Warwick  

The main reason for May’s move is that Labour is considered very weak – Corbyn is not popular and therefore the PM sees an opportunity here.

Another reason in the background is that May can possibly pick up a few votes from the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which pushed very much for the referendum. UKIP does not have a single MP in parliament, however they get quite a significant share of the vote across the country and I think the PM wants to sweep up a large share of that vote.

Can Brexit be finished in two years? – Inside Story

So It seems fairly clear that May will gain quite a few seats in this snap election – I think, ironically, this might lead to a softer version of Brexit.

I say ironic because May so far has been advocating a hard Brexit but the reason she might get a softer Brexit out of this is because she will no longer be as dependent on some of the hard-line, pro-Brexit MPs so she will have more flexibility when it comes to negotiations with Brussels.

By softer Brexit, in particular I would mean the transition period that might have the same circumstances in place as we already have right now – and that might actually quite a few years.

Under the old timetable Britain would have left the EU in 2019 and would have faced a new general election in 2020.

Under the new timetable, Britain will still leave the EU in 2019 but there will be three years until the next general election, which will then be in 2022 only.

That means there will be a much longer window during which May can have a transition agreement – perhaps still free movement of labour, still paying fees to the EU, and that will be much easier for her to carry through because she will not immediately face the electorate.

Professor John Ryan, fellow at London School of Economics, specialising in Britain and the EU  

I think it’s a rather risky move. May has got a very strong lead in the polls at the moment, but anything can happen from now until June 8.

The question is can the opposition actually get its act together and provide a strong counter to her hard Brexit strategy, because this is all going to get very ugly very quickly.

After the French and German elections, Britain is going to run into some difficulties in these negotiations, so I suppose on the one hand she thought of trying to get a strong majority, but what she risks doing is actually losing a majority which would make it even more difficult for her to get away in terms of a negotiating strategy.

It was a surprise in 2015 that the Conservatives won a strong mandate. Now the opposition is weak, the Labour Party is in a bit of disarray, but there is an economics element here in terms of what’s happening in the UK. I think people are getting quite pessimistic about Brexit in terms of what their economic futures would look like.

Corbyn said he welcomed May's decision 'to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first
Corbyn said he welcomed May’s decision ‘to give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first” [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

If Corbyn wants to oppose May in terms of economic policy, then Labour needs to get its act together and actually come up with something that is credible – at the moment they’ve been unable to do that and convince the British people.

Where they are strong in terms of opinion poll rating is in defending the National Health Service and people are getting concerned about that.

So from that perspective, they can really join up with the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, but it’s a short amount of time and they really need to act quickly.

We shouldn’t forget that there are council elections coming up in May which may give us an indication of where the country is going.

Source: Al Jazeera