Theresa May – in a position of both strength and weakness


When Theresa May assembled the media outside 10 Downing Street on 18 April there was much speculation about what was to be announced. After eventually emerging from the famous door to call a snap general election, questions were posed as well as answered. First and foremost, the matter of why she had decided to go to the polls just weeks after ruling out such a move.

Labour down, UKIP out

The general view is that the temptation was simply too great for the Prime Minister to increase her narrow parliamentary majority, as she saw her governing Conservative Party riding high in the polls.

The opposition Labour Party is in disarray, with MPs and the party membership locked in a bitter civil war with one another over left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has had record low approval ratings with the public and, under his leadership, Labour recently lost a by-election in a constituency held by the party since 1935.

Meanwhile the Tories have been able to poach voters en masse from UKIP. The far-right party has faded dramatically since last year’s Brexit referendum and struggled to articulate its purpose now that the Government are implementing essentially their only previous policy.

Without a credible challenger to either their left or right, the Conservatives have been presented with an opportunity to gain a landslide victory.

Sovereign of everything, master of nothing

There could be another reason for May to have called an election that even she did not appear to have been preparing for. In contrast to her strong position at home, she may be increasingly aware of her weakness abroad.

There is growing concern in Brussels that the gulf between the UK’s expectations and what can reasonably be achieved is too vast. Last month the FAZ reported a leak from a dinner held between Jean-Claude Juncker, Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis which ended with the Commission President saying he was “ten times more sceptical” a deal could be reached. Days later Angela Merkel asserted “some in Great Britain still have illusions” over what is possible.

May does recognise at least some red lines, as shown by her early decision to quit both the Single Market and Customs Union so as to regain control of immigration and the ability to strike international trade deals. She will also recognise that this will deeply harm the UK economically.

The official period of withdrawal negotiations is two years, meaning that the UK will formally leave the EU in March 2019. Were May to have seen out her term without seeking a renewed mandate the next election would have been just a year later, amid likely chaos. Having an election now gives her breathing space.


The paradox of power

Although opinion ratings have narrowed as voting day approaches, the broad expectation is still that Theresa May will have an increased majority when the final votes are counted.

An election is not a referendum, and is never fought on any single issue. Nevertheless, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has inevitably dominated campaigning (at least until the recent terrorist attacks). The Prime Minister herself has repeatedly said that a vote for her is a vote that strengthens her hand at the negotiating table in Brussels.

In other words the larger her majority, the greater the expectations of both the public and the hardline Brexiteers in her party. These expectations, whilst in line with what the British population has been promised, are utterly undeliverable. For Theresa May, victory on Thursday could be a poisoned chalice.

This blog post is part of a blog series about the UK General Election by the emerging think tank Agora in London. Agora will be launched in autumn 2017 as part of the foraus-global network of open think tanks.