The tall, seemingly shy Theresa May is known as a tough, no-nonsense politician who does not do small talk. Everyone believed her when she repeated several times that there would be no mid-term election. But that was until Tuesday morning, when, just as people were returning to work after a sunny Easter and bank holiday weekend, she sprang a surprise that not even the most cued in political nerds in Westminster were aware of: a mid-term election on June 8. Being hard to read is the latest layer on her political profile.
On the face of it, there is no real need for a mid-term election: there is no crisis or war; neither is the opposition demanding it. But scratch the surface and you see a cold political calculation. The ruling Conservatives have a thin majority in the House of Commons, ever hostage to threats from its own rebels and the opposition. The pro-EU House of Lords, where the party is not in a majority, is not exactly enamoured of her Brexit plans. She often faces the charge of being an unelected prime minister, having succeeded David Cameron, who led the party to power in 2015 but quit after losing the EU referendum.
The objective is clear: to capitalise on the disarray in the Labour ranks, the growing ratings for her and the Conservative party in recent opinion polls, and set at rest many political fires inside and outside Westminster by winning a bigger majority. It is an ambush laid for Labour, and in particular for its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who insists he is running but is not moving an inch in gaining popular support. May has displayed characteristic confidence that the ambush will work, allowing her to carry on the Brexit process in Brussels, unhindered by carping criticism. In short, she is seeking a blank cheque to put her stamp on Brexit and the way the UK sees itself and the way the world sees it in future.
There is already a sense of weariness across the United Kingdom – some say a dis-United Kingdom – that the country faces the fourth election in four years: the Scotland independence referendum in 2014, the general election of 2015, the EU referendum in 2016, and now the mid-term election. In many ways the outcome of each of the three rounds is linked to the June 8 election. Brexit is hardly on top of the agenda all over the UK’s four countries, and weariness over the domination of Brexit in public discourse may well lead to a low turnout.
Going to the people is a time-tested device in a democracy. But given that we are in an age of upstart election results, anything is possible, and pollsters and opinion polls have not exactly enhanced their reputation in recent elections in the UK and elsewhere. The June 8 election is already seen as a ‘Brexit election’ and an opportunity to reverse the vote to leave the EU. Can Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, along with others, topple the Tories to form a coalition government? June 9 may well see the next chapter in the age of upstart results.