LONDON – Several months ago, I predicted that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government would fall by next month, when the British people realized that the “soft Brexit” they had been promised was impossible. How wrong I was! May has now called an early election, which she is tipped to win easily.
As it turns out, May herself realized what would happen if people discussed and disputed her Brexit plans. So she crafted a political strategy that would keep the Brexit debate from opening up again. This meant never allowing a popular (or even parliamentary) vote on what kind of Brexit May’s government should pursue, let alone a second vote on whether Brexit should happen at all.
But it was clearly stated that last June’s referendum on Britain’s European Union membership was merely consultative and not binding on parliament. Moreover, the various Brexit options were never discussed as alternatives – much less voted upon – during the referendum campaign.
If anything, the expectation among Brexit voters, created by Brexiteers like Boris Johnson, now May’s foreign secretary, was that they could “have their cake and eat it.” Britain, proclaimed Johnson and other prominent leaders of the “Leave” campaign, would retain easy access to the single market, while being able to block immigration from the EU.
Rather than revisit those issues and reveal just how mendacious the Brexiteers’ promises were, May has pursued a “lockdown” of all discussion. And she has been breathtakingly successful.
The first step in May’s strategy was to state unequivocally last summer that “there will be no early general election.” This served to prevent any mobilization of the 48% of the voters who had voted “Remain” and who, contrary to the expectations of most professional politicians, remain strongly opposed to Brexit. Had May not taken that step, a political anti-Brexit project – led by, say, the Liberal Democrats or a new center-left party – could have emerged and challenged the Conservatives for power. The result of a “Brexit election,” which took place once voters knew that Brexit really could happen, would have turned into a re-run of the referendum and could have been highly unpredictable.
But, until May’s announcement, seasoned political players, such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair, thought Brexit would be over before the next general election, so none laid the groundwork for such a project. This puts them at a severe disadvantage.
The second step in May’s strategy was to avoid any discussion of what kind of Brexit the UK should choose. Contrary to government claims, May’s goal here was not to gain the upper hand in negotiations, by keeping the EU27 in the dark about Britain’s objectives. (Britain’s ideal outcome is no secret, after all.) Instead, May’s government wanted to keep British voters from recognizing the extent to which they had been duped by the Leave campaign.
According to opinion polls, last year, most voters wanted both single-market membership and control over EU immigration. If forced to choose, they preferred single-market membership by large majorities. Yet May’s government is probably going to secure the opposite outcome: control over immigration, but at the cost of what she calls a “clean break” with the single market.
May’s government knew that, if the Leave campaign’s deception had been revealed, her Conservative Party, now tethered to Brexit, would have faced a potentially disastrous backlash. This danger was highlighted last week by a YouGov poll, which for the first time showed a plurality regretting the result of the Brexit referendum. So she is attempting to “boil the frog slowly,” ensuring that it doesn’t realize it is being cooked until it is too late to jump out of the pot.
This strategy was nearly thwarted, when government efforts failed to prevent a parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50, officially launching Brexit negotiations. May’s government had resisted the vote precisely because it feared that it would have to provide more details about its aims, either repeating disingenuously the Brexiteers’ pledges, which the EU would quickly declare unacceptable, or owning up to the Brexiteers’ (and its own) deception.
When the Supreme Court ruled that parliament would get a vote, May’s government had to find a third way. It resorted to the same obfuscation that had served the Brexiteers so well during the referendum – and won the vote.
The last critical step in May’s plan to push forward a version of Brexit that British voters never wanted is to prevent a vote on the final deal. Were May to stick to the normal electoral schedule, negotiations would end just 18 months before the general election. That is not the moment when a government wants its deceit to be exposed, especially given that the agreement May reaches may well divide her own party.
By holding the election now, May is avoiding this risk. It is too late for the campaign to focus on whether to trigger Article 50. And it is early enough that voters – and even many businesses – remain unaware of what a hard Brexit will mean. In short, the British don’t yet know that they’ve been conned.
In the name of democracy and sovereignty, British voters are being denied any chance to reconsider Brexit, even though many voted for it under false pretenses, or to express an informed opinion on what kind of Brexit their government should pursue. Instead, they are being manipulated into voting, yet again, for the impossible.
All of this carries worrisome implications for the state of Britain’s democracy, its political culture, and even its long-term stability. When foreigners ask how British democracy can function without a written constitution, the usual answer is that Britons’ common understanding of fair and foul play would lead them to reject undemocratic behavior. How convincing is that answer today?
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017