With her decision to call an election in June, Theresa May becomes the second consecutive UK prime minister to take a gamble with Brexit. Her decision need not prove as disastrous as David Cameron’s, however — especially if she runs the right kind of campaign.
May has reason to ask voters for her own mandate as leader of the government. Recall that she succeeded Cameron, who was forced to resign last year after voters approved Brexit. Up until then, the Conservative government, including May, had favored remaining in the European Union. After the country voted to leave, its task under new leadership was to negotiate a separation on the best possible terms. In principle that justifies an early election, and May could have saved herself some political grief by not promising, as she did, that there wouldn’t be one.
But asking for a mandate does not give her the right to shut down opposition to the government’s approach to Brexit. May says the country is coming together, but Westminster is not. Her critics in parliament are making her task more difficult: The point of the election, she implies, is to shut them up.
The country is, in fact, bitterly divided over Brexit. And the problem with the opposition’s stance on Brexit is not that it exists, but that it has been too angry and bewildered to exert any useful effect.
Brexit is happening. The country has voted to leave the EU and formal notice has now been served on the other members. But the full consequences of this choice are still much in doubt, and will depend in part on the demands the U.K. makes during the exit talks. Those demands — including the country’s so-called red lines on issues such as immigration and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice — should not be hoisted out of the political realm. And by the way, whatever the election’s outcome, they won’t be. May is wrong to want this, and wrong to think she can get it.
The best result would be an election in which the government’s goals for Brexit are tested and come into clearer focus. If May’s tactical calculation is correct, a show of strong support for that position might then allow her to deal with the EU more confidently. Conceivably, the prospect of an electoral contest might also channel her critics’ arguments in more productive directions — accepting that Brexit will happen, and concentrating on winning the most favorable terms.
The election will serve a valuable purpose, in other words, if it makes Britain a little more pragmatic and a little less divided. But as Cameron discovered, votes don’t always promote consensus, and they don’t always go as planned.