THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
British Election 2017: Unnecessary? Why now?
Sir Robert Worcester looks at the surprise General Election and how it could affect Americans
Despite a series of denials that there would not be an election before 2020, Prime Minister Theresa May shocked the country with her announcement on Tuesday 18 April by calling a General Election to be held on Thursday 8 June 2017, just over two years since the previous election in May 2015. This, despite Parliament having passed a fixed-term election law, the next to be in 2020.
Why did she call the election at all? And why now? Her explanation was because not to have "unity" among the political parties in Westminster weakened her ability to maintain a strong position in her negotiation on Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union. Under the EU rules, once given the Brexit intention to leave, there is a two-year period in which the negotiations for exiting. If the election had been held in 2020, it would have conflicted with the final few months of the Brexit negotiations.
My own view is that with the economy strengthening, exchange rate of the pound against the dollar creeping up, unemployment down, polls having a 20–24 Conservative point lead over the opposition Labour Party, with her majority in the House of Commons, a thin 17 seats, she felt that she better go now while the going is good.
Brexit is not going to be easy. Trade negotiations, immigration rules, employment laws, the list goes on and on. Already there are three Government agencies hard at work in pre-negotiations and clocks are ticking. Problems pop up every day. One recent problem arose when the EU insisted that the status of Gibraltar is subject to the agreement of Spain. Clearly given the views of the Gibraltarians and the British electorate, this just isn't on.
An easy ride for the Tories?
Some are talking about 100+ seat majority. I am sceptical. After the 2015 election in the House of Commons the Conservatives had 330 seats, Labour 232, SNP 56, Liberal Democrats 8, UKIP 1 and the Northern Irish MPs a total of 18. 26 Conservative seats are defined as marginal, marginal being defined as having a winning majority of under 5% at the last election. There are just 8 for Labour and 5 for the Liberal Democrats. It would appear that more Conservative seats might be in jeopardy and so they seem to be. Instead, I expect most, if not all, will increase their majority.
Britain's exit from European laws on migrants has been a continuing problem for Americans wanting to work in this country. Many of us came in as I did, with an easy ride, as I was leading a joint venture, an Anglo-American research company. Many Americans working in this country were also privileged to receive a warm welcome. As the EU tightened however, it became more and more difficult for Americans to get work permits and this stemmed the flow. Even American students wanting to study at British universities had difficulty. Having served on the Fulbright Commission for nine years, I recall virtually every meeting of the Commission the problem of American students obtaining visas was on the agenda.
Psephologically, given the dire state of the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, it looks without close examination an easy ride for the Tories. It ain't necessarily so.
American President Donald Trump has proclaimed his enduring support for the "Special Relationship". His selection of several of his top team already have had close connections with Britain during their careers. If anything, these links will strengthen the Special Relationship.
My colleagues and I have a nearly-ready-for-publication book, "Explaining Cameron's Catastrophe", following on from our book of the 2015 General Election, "Explaining Cameron's Coalition". We've started on the 2017 book already; its working title is "Explaining May's Majority". We'll see on the 8th of June.
Professor Sir Robert Worcester KBE DL, is Founder of the polling organization MORI