Ms. May’s snap de­ci­sion

Early elec­tions in Bri­tain could de­ter­mine ex­actly how painful leav­ing the Euro­pean Union will be.

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - TOM TOLES

BRI­TISH PRIME Min­is­ter Theresa May’s de­ci­sion to hold early elec­tions in June, re­vers­ing what had been a firm pub­lic po­si­tion, surely re­flects her recog­ni­tion that Bri­tain’s exit from the Euro­pean Union will be far more com­pli­cated and painful than vot­ers were promised when they sup­ported it in a ref­er­en­dum last year.

The “leave” cam­paign promised that mi­gra­tion from the other 27 E.U. coun­tries would be cur­tailed and the ju­ris­dic­tion of E.U. bu­reau­crats and the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice abol­ished, with­out dam­age to an econ­omy that is heav­ily de­pen­dent on free trade with Europe. In fact, as Ms. May has be­gun to ac­knowl­edge, re­gain­ing con­trol of Bri­tain’s bor­ders will mean a costly exit from the com­mon mar­ket. In ad­di­tion, Brus­sels could hand Bri­tain a bill for tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in resid­ual pay­ments, and a new trade deal could take years to ne­go­ti­ate.

By 2020, when the elec­tion would have been held un­der the usual sched­ule, Bri­tons are likely to be suf­fer­ing the heavy costs of a de­ci­sion that so far has not had much prac­ti­cal im­pact. A vote now could ex­tend the term of Ms. May and the Con­ser­va­tives to 2022, giv­ing them more time to man­age the fall­out. More im­por­tantly, it is likely to sub­stan­tially in­crease the gov­ern­ment’s small, 17-seat ma­jor­ity in the 650-mem­ber House of Com­mons, thanks to the abysmal state of the op­po­si­tion Labour Party.

Un­for­tu­nately, the elec­tion will strand many of the 48 per­cent of vot­ers who op­posed and, ac­cord­ing to opin­ion polls, still op­pose Brexit. Un­der far-left leader Jeremy Cor­byn, Labour is weakly am­biva­lent on the is­sue. The small Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party has taken a firm stand against leav­ing the union, but while it is ex­pected to gain seats, for now it is polling at around 10 per­cent and ap­pears un­likely to stop a Con­ser­va­tive land­slide.

For Ms. May, who re­placed David Cameron nine months ago and has not yet won her own elec­tion, the most im­por­tant ques­tion may be not the size of her mar­gin over Labour, but the com­po­si­tion of the new Con­ser­va­tive par­lia­men­tary group. To suc­ceed in ne­go­ti­a­tions with E.U. lead­ers she will need the flex­i­bil­ity to over­rule party hard-lin­ers who will op­pose any con­ces­sion on bor­ders and reg­u­la­tion; that would be dif­fi­cult in the cur­rent Par­lia­ment. A more mod­er­ate ma­jor­ity will be es­sen­tial to deals pre­serv­ing Bri­tish ac­cess to the Euro­pean mar­ket in key ar­eas, such as fi­nance and auto man­u­fac­tur­ing, with­out which the econ­omy could be se­verely dam­aged.

For now, Ms. May re­mains care­fully vague about the terms of an exit agree­ment. Apart from say­ing in a Jan­uary speech that con­trol over mi­gra­tion and es­cape from the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice were pri­or­i­ties, and a de­par­ture from the sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union a con­se­quence, the prime min­is­ter has been un­clear on a range of is­sues, such as whether Bri­tain will con­sent to pay the huge exit bill that some E.U. of­fi­cials say it will owe. No doubt she will be pressed dur­ing the cam­paign to tell her sup­port­ers more clearly what they are vot­ing for; but for the same rea­sons she de­cided to call an elec­tion, Ms. May will likely de­mur.

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