BUDAPEST – Six months ago, I predicted that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government wouldn’t last far beyond May of this year. I expected the British people to have realized by then that the “soft Brexit” they had been promised was impossible. This would so undermine May’s authority, I anticipated, that she would have to resign. Lo and behold, the snap election that May called two months ago has now denied her Conservative Party a majority, resulting in a hung parliament
To be sure, by last month, I had come around to the conventional wisdom that May’s Conservatives would win. After all, May had cleverly called the election at a moment when it could not be about Brexit: one month after invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, thereby officially initiating the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. The real negotiations – which are supposed to take two years, but are likely to take much longer – haven’t even started.
Of course, May did not count on timing alone. She had been executing a political strategy that prevented the Brexit debate from being reopened. That strategy seemed to enable her to avoid public attention to the fundamental lie – that Britain could “have its cake and eat it” – peddled by the now-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and former Justice Minister Michael Gove, among others, during the Brexit campaign.
But British voters, it is now clear, weren’t fooled. They understood, even if half-consciously, the audacious dishonesty of May’s ploy. They saw through her “strong and stable” motto, repeated ad nauseum throughout the campaign, to the spurious and shifty reality beneath. They realized that they were being manipulated – and they took their revenge at the polls.
Pundits will say that May lost the election because she performed robotically on the campaign trail, failed to answer journalists’ questions with conviction, and refused to debate Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who campaigned with more panache than anyone expected. All of this is true.
But May’s lack of passion was rooted in her own political strategy. To avoid any real debate about the issues Britain faces – in particular, the reality of Brexit – she had to make the election about nothing at all.
May attempted to portray Brexit as essentially a done deal. The big decision had been made in last year’s referendum, when the British voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU. “Brexit,” May declared, “means Brexit.” But what May hoped would seem like a clear, even powerful, stance was actually a vague, fatuous, and rather transparent ploy to avoid the question that voters never had a chance to consider: “What kind of Brexit should the UK pursue?”
Now, May is attempting to form a minority government. But, given the Conservative Party’s history of summarily dethroning its leaders, there is a strong chance that May will have to resign as prime minister well before the Brexit negotiations end.
Even if May remains at the helm of the next government, she will have to negotiate a Brexit agreement that will have little chance of getting through the House of Commons, as all other parties (including even Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on which her next government would have to rely) want a relatively soft Brexit. Even the Conservative Party is split between hard-line Brexiteers and former Remainers.
And getting the deal through the House of Commons is just the first step. The House of Lords will also resist a Conservative-negotiated Brexit deal – not least because of May’s approach.
According to constitutional convention in the UK, the Lords do not block measures that the government had in its manifesto. But that won’t help May much, because she intentionally ensured that little of substance about Brexit was included in her party’s manifesto. So the Labour and Liberal Democrat majority in the House of Lords – which May cowed into authorizing the start of the Brexit talks in February – can reject the deal that a minority Conservative government produces.
Under these circumstances, the only option left for such a government would be to call a vote – whether a general election or a second referendum – focused on the Brexit agreement that the Conservatives negotiate. It is, of course, impossible to know now whether any such vote would actually give British voters the opportunity to rethink Brexit itself. But it would at least give them what May never would until now: a real chance to choose the kind of Brexit they want.