If you want to understand the impact of Theresa May’s call for a snap general election, think of it this way: a British general election is like suddenly announcing presidential and congressional elections all to be squeezed into a seven-week campaign.
Add in the fact that it is the third time in three years that British voters are being asked to go to the polls (a general election in 2015, the European Union referendum in 2016 and now another general election on June 8) and it’s clear no one should take the results for granted.
Critics pointed out that while May was not compelled to call an election, she was governing without a mandate. For months, she rejected this argument — until, on April 18, she didn’t.
It’s clear that a commanding lead in opinion polls changed her mind. With the main opposition Labour Party trailing badly, some observers say the question isn’t whether the Tories will win the June election but how big their landslide will be. Their current 27-seat majority on the House of Commons could spike to more than 100.
That puts paid to the image May has cultivated since taking over last July, that of a no-nonsense prime minister who puts country before party. She is also being assailed for ducking a call for televised debates with other party leaders before the June vote.
In fact, there are reasons to question May’s popularity. Her high marks from the public are helped by comparisons with her main rival, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, who has been an abysmal party leader. According to The Guardian newspaper, when Britons were asked who would make the better prime minister, 50 percent named May. Only 14 percent named Corbyn.
What these numbers mask is dissatisfaction with May’s own failure to come to grips with problems that would be familiar to Americans: stagnant wages, rising income inequality, a shortage of affordable housing, and cuts in the education budget. She also faces widespread anger over her failure to deal with persistent under-funding of the National Health Service.
May doesn’t want to talk about these issues. She wants an election on who will lead Britain in the negotiations over its withdrawal from the EU. The choice is “between strong and stable leadership” with herself as prime minister, she declared, “or weak and unstable coalition government” composed of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and other regional parties.
Yet her handling of Brexit has been far from reassuring. The Conservatives are split between those who want a “hard Brexit,” a complete severing of ties with the EU, and those who prefer a “soft Brexit,” an arrangement that retains some of the advantages of being in the EU without formal membership. While a victory in June could force these two wings to fall in line behind whatever deal May comes to with the Europeans, Tory MPs are notoriously fractious on this issue. There’s no reason to think that will change.
Finally, there is what the English (often derisively) call the “Celtic Fringe”: the other three nations of the United Kingdom — Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Although the Welsh joined English voters in backing Brexit, those in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
Even before she called June’s election, May was under fire for what one Welsh politician called her “tin ear” when it comes to the three non-English components of the UK. This is especially true of Scotland, which decisively rejected Brexit and where the dominant Scottish National Party is demanding another referendum on independence from the UK.
Equally worrying, Brexit threatens the still-fragile peace process in Northern Ireland and could ignite a new round of violence between those who want to reunite the province with southern Ireland (an EU member) and those who want the province to remain part of the UK.
A seven-week political campaign is astonishingly brief by American standards. Not so in Britain as one of May’s predecessors knew better than most. “A week,” Harold Wilson once told reporters, “is a long time in politics.”
There are several weeks before British voters go to the polls in June, time enough for a lot to go wrong, and not just for May’s opponents.
Kevin Matthews is a professor of British history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.