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Theresa May Rolls the Electoral Dice

LONDON – A big election year for Europe just got bigger. With France’s upcoming presidential election becoming a nail-biter, and Germans preparing to vote in September, British Prime Minister Theresa May has now called a snap election for June 8. The outcome will have far-reaching implications not only for the United Kingdom’s impending negotiations on withdrawal from the European Union, but also for the survival of the UK itself.

Notwithstanding the unpredictability of British politics nowadays, May’s Conservative Party is expected to win the election handily. A recent YouGov/Times poll predicted that the Conservatives would receive 44% of the vote, compared to 23% for the Labour Party, 12% for the Liberal Democrats, and 10% for the UK Independence Party. Under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservatives would likely have a hefty majority of more than 100 seats in the House of Commons – up from 14 now.

May owes her position as prime minister to the parliamentary majority that David Cameron won in 2015, before he resigned in the wake of last June’s Brexit referendum. But if the election result vindicates the pollsters, she will have a significantly stronger popular mandate than Cameron did.

To be sure, the Conservatives are unlikely to win more than 50% of the vote. But May could still claim that a big parliamentary majority amounts to an endorsement of her pursuit of a “hard Brexit.” That entails leaving the EU single market and customs union, so that the UK can impose immigration controls on EU citizens, free itself from the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction, and pursue its own trade deals. At the same time, a large parliamentary majority might give May more leeway to make compromises during the Brexit negotiations, because she will be less vulnerable to pressure from hardline Brexiteers.