Charting the battlegrounds of Britain’s Brexit election

With yesterday’s shock announcement of a snap general election to take place on 8 June, Theresa May not only u-turned on the government’s repeated commitment to the electoral timetable laid out by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act; she also revealed a capacity for political theatre sharply at odds with her self-proclaimed, more prosaic preference for ‘getting the job done’.

The public interrogation of the Prime Minister’s motives for this radical departure from both her established style and previous pledges began immediately. The key reason was widely identified as the Conservatives’ historic, 21-point polling advantage over a weakened Labour Party. An early election presents the opportunity to expand the party’s slender parliamentary majority and better insulate Ms May from backbench attacks, of both Eurosceptic and Europhile varieties, as she addresses the herculean task of navigating Britain’s departure from the EU.  

With only 50 days until Britain returns to the polls, focus will shift quickly to the campaign itself. The parameters of the debate, as laid out by the government, were immediately apparent. Ms May called upon rival party leaders to “put forward our plans for Brexit… and then let the people decide.” For the first time in recent memory, a policy issue that has its origins abroad will take precedence over the purely domestic social and economic considerations that have consistently determined election winners. The Conservative Party’s campaign headquarters will be dispensing with the trusted maxim from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign on the importance of the economy, in favour of a new iteration: “It’s Brexit, stupid.”

There is a distinct irony to this. Ms May tepidly endorsed Britain’s continued EU membership during the referendum campaign. Upon her elevation to the office of Prime Minister, she expressed her intention of prioritising the domestic agenda of “making Britain a country that works for everyone”. And she vehemently resisted efforts to subject her government’s interpretation of the referendum result to parliamentary oversight. But now she has called, and will in all likelihood win, what history will record as the Brexit general election.

Of course, alongside this focus on Britain’s future relationship with the EU, Ms May will need to flesh out a post-Brexit governing agenda. The requirement to publish a comprehensive five-year manifesto may usefully allow the government to untether itself from domestic policy commitments made in the unrecognisable political climate of 2015, such as the moratorium on National Insurance increases that led to the Chancellor’s humiliating Budget climbdown last month. More problematically, it will also demand answers on essentially unaddressed post-Brexit questions such as farming subsidies, research funding, and investment into the communities whose regeneration lies at the heart of the government’s ‘Industrial Strategy’. By broadening the scope of the debate, the government risks a splintering of the pro-hard Brexit voting bloc on whose support it currently relies.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats will seek to fight as narrowly defined a campaign as possible, focused exclusively on the terms of Brexit. Tim Farron’s party senses an opportunity to position itself as the voice of the disenfranchised 48% of the electorate who voted to remain in the EU and reverse the devastating losses it sustained in 2015, when it shed 49 of its 57 MPs. Last December’s by-election victory in Richmond Park, where a Europhile backlash within the ardently pro-Remain constituency against Leave-supporting incumbent Zac Goldsmith delivered the party its ninth parliamentary seat, provides the template they will seek to export across the rest of London and the UK. Labour MPs in north London and Conservatives in the south-west of the capital will be feeling particularly vulnerable to similar anti-Brexit sentiment. Meanwhile, in spite of the region’s majority Leave vote, Tory MPs in the former Liberal Democrat stronghold of south-west England will not be relishing a return to the polls.

How the Labour Party will seek to frame the debate in the run-up to polling day is less clear-cut. The party is vulnerable on Brexit, occupying an uncomfortable middle-ground between the Remain and Leave camps – now symbolised by Lib Dem and SNP Europhiles versus the Conservative government. This is particularly troublesome given that the UK electorate views Brexit in binary terms. Jeremy Corbyn instead welcomed the election as an opportunity to critique the government’s ‘failed economic agenda’. This familiar rhetoric signalled the party’s early intention to fight the campaign on its pet issues of inequality, the NHS, and public services – albeit from a more radical policy position than any Labour leader has presented to the UK electorate since the landslide defeat of 1983.

Even factoring in the unreliability of political polls, however, the prospects of Labour riding an anti-austerity wave of public opinion to victory seem impossibly remote. The Conservatives are confidently seeking to replicate their own recent by-election triumph in the north-western constituency of Copeland, where the government overturned a 2,500-strong opposition majority in February, across a swathe of Labour seats. A swing of this magnitude throughout Labour heartlands would bear out the fatalistic predictions of the centrist Labour MPs who have long doubted Mr Corbyn’s electability and warned of a decline to 180 MPs or fewer under his leadership. The possibility that a Labour electoral wipe-out precipitates his replacement with a more competitive Leader of the Opposition for the duration of the Brexit negotiations will have been considered by the Conservatives and assessed to be a price worth paying.

The announcement of a general election in seven weeks’ time, expected to receive the requisite two-thirds majority support from the House of Commons today, is testament to the Conservatives’ confidence in their unassailable position. However, it’s also indicative of how the aftershocks of the Brexit vote continue to reverberate throughout British politics. With the different possible roadmaps for Brexit set to receive greater public scrutiny than ever before, and the SNP’s calls for a second Scottish independence referendum likely to be reenergised by Ms May’s evident willingness to address domestic political issues in parallel with Brexit talks, it would be a shock in itself if the campaign were to unfold as straightforwardly as the Prime Minister anticipates.