In the recent Brexit campaign, Theresa May confirmed an already settled reputation as a political leader whose watchword was caution. She was thought to lean privately toward Brexit. She prudently opted for the position held by the majority of the cabinet: Remain. She made one not-very-helpful speech supporting EU membership — and left it at that. And after Leave won the vote and David Cameron resigned, she ran successfully for the Tory leadership on a platform of accepting the electorate’s verdict and going unambiguously for Brexit even if the only version on offer was a so-called hard Brexit. There is caution a-plenty in that record; but there is also a clear evolution toward firmness and decision, especially at moments of crisis.
Prime Minister May’s decision yesterday to call for an early election on June 8 demonstrates that decisiveness. There is undoubtedly a strong case, in both national and partisan terms, for an early election. May’s government has a small parliamentary majority that might in theory be whittled away in by-election losses and, on Brexit, in rebellions from the small coterie of ultra-Remainers on the Tory benches. She is faced also by a hostile anti-Brexit majority in the unelected House of Lords that would happily take advantage of any government reverses to delay or halt the progress toward Brexit.
From a partisan Tory standpoint, a general election that delivered the May government a larger parliamentary majority, a clear mandate to pursue its own version of Brexit, and a full five years to do so would be a massive improvement on its present straitened circumstances. From a national democratic standpoint, it’s desirable that the electorate’s vote for Brexit — the single biggest democratic vote in British history — should now be carried through to fruition by a government that has won an election on it. Such a result would also reshape the political landscape of Britain to produce a settled post-European polity — as opposed to the years of uncertainty and massive social and political divisions that would be introduced by a surprise Tory defeat.
Unless the current polls are wildly (and universally) wrong, however, we are likely to get a solid Tory victory, if one short of a landslide. Most polls now give the Tories a lead of between 18 and 23 percent over Labour — and a share of the popular vote between 42 and 44 percent in what is for the moment a four-party system (five-party system if you count the regional Scottish National Party). May’s Tories will doubtless fall short of that lead in practice because some voters dislike the inconvenience of snap elections and vote against a government that imposes one on them. Also, realignment elections (and this looks like one) usually feature shifts of support between the opposition parties as well as between government and opposition. And there will be plenty of those.
Judged against such discouraging circumstances and such encouraging prospects, Mrs. May’s courage in calling this election seems not very substantial. But Labour’s Gordon Brown flinched from a similarly attractive proposition when he succeeded Tony Blair and lost four years later; and Jim Callaghan, having passed up a good opportunity to win an election in fall 1978, fell victim to Mrs. Thatcher’s onslaught six months later. Prime ministers don’t like to take risks with their own power, and they reckon that possession is nine tenths of the law. It took judgment, courage, and a cool head for Mrs. May to choose the likelihood of five more years in power over the certainty of the next three. Fortune favors the fair but gives no guarantees.
But if we assume that although the race is not always to the swift, that’s the way to bet, what will a Tory victory mean for the future? Its first impact will be that Brexit becomes a certainty. None of the various plots and maneuvers against it will be able to withstand the democratic steamroller of an election victory on a pro-Brexit manifesto. The lawsuits will wither, the lords will retreat, the civil servants will rediscover the constitution, the judges will hibernate through the winter of negotiations. And in Brussels, the prospect of the inevitable will clarify the minds of Eurocrats and predispose them to negotiate seriously for a deal that benefits both sides.
None of the various plots and maneuvers against Brexit will be able to withstand the democratic steamroller of an election victory on a pro-Brexit manifesto.
With the certainty of Brexit, the debate over the kind of Brexit will become calmer, less nervy, more a matter of calculation, less one of immediate national destiny. Mrs. May will have the authority to call the shots domestically on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal and on any new relationship with the European Union — and with other trading partners from the U.S. to the CANZUK countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.) to China. She will have the prestige of an election-winner with other countries and the EU, and that will prevent them from exploiting the divisions at home and in her own party against her, as they’re doing now in the EU talks. She can go for a harder Brexit or a softer one with less angst, nervousness, and division among her supporters in business and politics because they will know that the direction to Brexit is fixed and that “all rising is by a winding stair.” And she will have more than enough time — two years in negotiations, three in implementing the agreement — to carry Brexit through any intervening storms to a new status quo for Britain abroad and at home.
What might be the second impact of a new domestic political status quo? Already that is becoming clearer. The fact that the Tory party has been scoring 42–44 percent in opinion polls for several months (compared with long periods in the mid 30s or lower in the previous ten years) shows that May has already brought together a new broad national coalition — one that has the potential to grow further if UKIP continues to decline with Brexit’s success.
One aspect of this growth is that, unlike the situation in other European countries, what is called “populism” in Britain has been absorbed naturally into the formal party system rather than being a “threat” to it. So-called populist issues such as immigration are taken seriously by the Tory government and now influence and even shape policy. Many activists — often but not always working-class — who would have gone into UKIP or single-issue movements or who have become simply apathetic if Cameron’s liberal modernizers still ran the Tories are now gravitating toward a more open and less exclusive Tory party. May is setting out very consciously to make them welcome, with an emphasis on both patriotism and social concern for the “just managing” classes that echoes an earlier Toryism.
Now that the Tories seem likely to win the next two elections or so, we can expect a similar enveloping movement to the center. Analysts of the Brexit result usually point out that two-thirds of the Remain vote was drawn from elite, professional, and middle-class voters who would have been Conservative in previous generations. That’s true enough, and these voters seem to have seen EU membership as one expression of their class interest — not irrationally since the EU offered them well-paid employment and other benefits.
But this analysis rather glosses over the fact that one-third of these classes voted to Leave. That’s a lot of people in many different professions who are already sympathetic to the new emerging status quo. As Brexit develops under a Tory government, the bright Leavers will be the first people to seize the opportunities and join the new institutions that emerge to advance post-European Britain in whatever international contexts May negotiates in and outside Europe.
Britain’s post-Brexit opportunities will exert a gravitational pull on other members of the Remain classes over time toward the broad-based conservatism that has achieved them.
But they won’t be the last. Britain’s post-Brexit opportunities — and government itself — will exert a gravitational pull on other members of the Remain classes over time toward the broad-based conservatism that has achieved them. Opinion follows interest. That’s why it’s important for Mrs. May and her senior ministers to ensure that Brexit is less a narrower gate into Europe than a wider one into North America, Australia, Asia, and Africa. She should lose no time in making agreements with Washington, Canberra, Ottawa, and points east, west, north, and south. Paradoxically, they will strengthen her coalition at home.
Governing Britain is about more than Brexit, of course. Where else is Theresa May likely to take Britain if her modest little flutter of a gamble pays off? Only yesterday, before this surprise election announcement, Janan Ganesh asked and answered this question in the Financial Times. May is the daughter of a vicar and was, he thought, someone of firm and confident views drawn from a certain kind of Anglicanism:
She favours a gentle society over a dynamic one, views the market with the suspicion of a mild social democrat and takes nationhood more seriously than the universalist end of Christianity tends to. None of these beliefs are extreme but they are held with enough strength to drive the government.
These are not exactly my own views. I would prefer a more Thatcherite perspective on markets and dynamism. But they are not foolish, wicked, or dangerous. And they seem to fit the needs of this particular moment in Britain’s history. Mrs. May has shown courage and judgment in fighting for them. I hope she’s given the chance to put them into practice.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.