BRUSSELS — British Prime Minister Theresa May’s surprise decision Tuesday to hold snap elections in June is unlikely to derail her efforts to lead her nation out of the European Union — but it could ease pressure on her during torturous Brexit negotiations over the next two years.
Wait, I thought Britain just voted in June to leave the European Union. Why does it need to vote again? Is it calling off Brexit?
The new elections might be a component of the Keep-Pundits-Employed Act of 2017, but Britain is still almost certainly headed out of the European Union. May has seized on this moment to reset her clock as Brexit negotiations get underway, but the dynamics just aren’t there to redo last year’s referendum. There’s no single leader who could rally anti-Brexit voices in a credible threat to May. How bad is it? Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s reaction to the snap elections avoided any mention of Brexit, Britain’s central political issue this generation, in a sign of his fears that trying to reverse the 2016 decision could alienate a big part of his base.
Why did May do this?
She’s operating from a position of strength, barring an unforeseen surge from the pro-E. U. Liberal Democrats. This way, she can win a mandate, crush a Labour Party that is sinking under Corbyn and deal with any Brexit dissenters inside her party. The bottom line is that she clears the way for her own Brexit approach, which appears to favor a fairly hard break with the European Union, with some transition time along the way to ease the pain. Britain still hasn’t had a tough discussion about the costs of Brexit — but Tuesday’s move is unlikely to advance that conversation.
It’s still a gamble — voters in Western democracies have delivered one surprise after another in the past year. But it’s hard to imagine a radical shift on Brexit after the snap elections.
So how do the camps line up?
British politicians are scrambling for position in their snap elections on June 8. The Liberal Democrats, who ruled alongside the Conservative Party until 2015, looked the best prepared Tuesday to seize the mantle as the pro-E. U. party in Britain.
“If you want to avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit. If you want to keep Britain in the Single Market. If you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance,” Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said in a statement.
It’s likely that the Liberal Democrats will pick up some seats from pro-E. U. voters searching for a place to register their displeasure with the direction of their nation. But the party is stuck at about 10 percent in the polls — not nearly enough to become a credible force to challenge May. Meanwhile, a recent poll showed that a majority of Labour supporters don't want Corbyn to become prime minister — and the party is on track to record its worst showing since 1918. The most interesting dynamic will be within the Conservative Party: What will be the balance between Brexit hard-liners and those who prefer a gentler approach?
And what does Europe think about it?
Europe is mostly shrugging its shoulders. Most of the analysts and officials I talked to said they were ready to negotiate with whomever sits on the other side of the table. They see it as a domestically focused move by May to sideline voices opposed to her, not a moment that fundamentally alters the Brexit calculus.
“You have to assume that the reason they have called elections is that they feel safe they can win an even larger majority and that the buyer’s remorse over Brexit is not strong enough to impact their chances,” said Tomas Valasek, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank.