Theresa May explained her decision to hold a snap election by talking tough on Brexit, saying she would use a fresh mandate to rout those in opposition parties who hoped to frustrate Britain’s departure from the EU.
But behind the prime minister’s robust rhetoric, some believe, lay a different motive: a pitch for a full five-year term that would allow her to work towards a smoother, more orderly Brexit, as well as help her to manage a politically awkward transitional deal.
Either way, Mrs May’s decision is intended to allow her to deliver Brexit on her own terms and in her own time. One diplomat from a leading EU government said: “It makes sense, if she wants a strong hand domestically.”
The prime minister defended her dramatic volte face on Tuesday on the grounds that in recent weeks Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party had indicated they would try to thwart any deal she negotiates with the EU. “Our opponents believe that because the government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course,” she said outside Downing Street. “They are wrong.”
Yet recent events suggest she is overstating the idea of a parliamentary ambush on Brexit. Last month she crushed opposition to the bill allowing her to trigger the Article 50 exit process; far from being a den of rebellion, parliament has been more often criticised for being supine in the face of a powerful prime minister.
Winning a new mandate will certainly reinforce her ability to deliver a clean break, with Britain leaving the single market and customs union. But it could also give her the authority to negotiate a “softer” transition to a new trade deal with the EU.
Andrew Duff, a former Lib Dem MEP now at the European Policy Centre think-tank, said the snap election was a calculated risk on the part of the prime minister to win independence from the “far right” of the Conservative party as Brexit talks proceed. “What she wants to do is to screw the extremists, the militants who she is aware are lining up to try to block her from an association agreement with the EU,” he said.
If Mrs May had stuck to her original plan, she would have faced the UK electorate in May 2020. At that point, Britain would probably still be tied to the EU during an “implementation phase” following the point of formal Brexit in March 2019.
This month she acknowledged that such a period might include the continuation of free movement of EU citizens in the UK while a free-trade deal was being negotiated. Some experts have speculated that Britain will also have to adhere to European Court of Justice rulings. Both issues — immigration and sovereignty — were key to the EU referendum and are dear to Brexiters’ hearts.
By holding an election in 2017 instead, Mrs May would have until June 2022 to wrap up the trade deal and to reach a final EU settlement before having to go back to the polls.
Read more on UK’s snap election
FT View:May’s snap election call is right for Brexit Britain
Sterling: Pound leaps on hopes of softer Brexit
Robert Shrimsley: Enfeebled Labour leaves centre up for grabs
Janan Ganesh: PM can now secure her mandate on Europe
Why Now?: Polls presented May with too good an opportunity to miss
Opinion polls: UK election 2017 poll tracker
Dominic Grieve, the pro-Remain former attorney-general, said: “I think one of the reasons she has done this is that the next general election might well have been fought in the middle of a period of continuing uncertainty. This could buy us extra time, on the basis of her hope of securing a working majority.”
Number 10 says the June election is also timed to cause minimum disruption to the two-year Brexit process: the campaign will take place while the EU is finalising its own negotiating position after the French president elections.
A spokesperson for Donald Tusk, European Council president, said the election would not alter the schedule of Brexit talks from the perspective of the EU27. “The UK elections do not change our EU27 plans,” said the spokesperson. “We expect to have the Brexit guidelines adopted by the European Council on April 29 and, following that, the Brexit negotiating directives ready on May 22.”
Brussels officials were similarly sanguine on Tuesday, saying the priority was to have a stable UK government that could be a reliable negotiating partner. Key dates such as the EU leaders’ summit on April 29 would be unaffected, they said, while dates for a first round of talks had not been fixed.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said the UK election was an internal affair “but clearly Brexit will be the key element of it. This means there will be an opportunity for the UK citizens to express themselves on how they see the future relationship between their country and the EU.”
Get alerts on UK general election when a new story is published