Are Brits Tired of Politics?

Theresa May hopes to secure a mandate in June's snap election. But she'll need to persuade voters to vote, first.

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside 10 Downing Street after traveling to Buckingham Palace to visit Queen Elizabeth after Parliament was dissolved ahead of the general election on May 3, 2017.
Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside 10 Downing Street after traveling to Buckingham Palace to visit Queen Elizabeth after Parliament was dissolved ahead of the general election on May 3, 2017. (Neil Hall / Reuters)

When Theresa May, the U.K. prime minister, called for a surprise snap election in April, she framed the vote as a necessary measure to give her Conservative government a strong mandate to press forward with negotiations over her country’s exit from the European Union. A strong Conservative showing in the election, scheduled for June 8, will also empower May to pursue a domestic agenda more aligned with her socially conservative politics, potentially by dismissing unreliable cabinet ministers like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and David Davis, secretary of state for exiting the EU. It may also embolden the Conservatives to hold a vote on Syrian airstrikes.

For Gina Miller, the investment manager who successfully sued the government last year to ensure Parliament would get to vote on invoking Article 50 (the measure signaling the U.K.’s intent to leave the EU), May’s plan risks changing the country’s fundamental nature. Miller hyperbolically alleges that May will turn Britain into an “electoral dictatorship”—rather than just consolidating her majority. Last week, Miller convened an audience of journalists in a private room at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art to announce her plan to foil May’s election agenda. Since May announced the snap election just over two weeks ago, Miller has raised over £360,000 to fund the “Best for Britain” campaign, which aims to encourage citizens to vote for candidates of all parties (including Conservatives) most likely to challenge May’s vision of a “hard” Brexit—a departure from the European single market and the end of free movement—and demand Parliament secure a final vote on the final U.K. exit deal. Her team has reportedly received £25,000 and office space from Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group. Other, similar efforts, such as the Open Britain campaign supported by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, and a smaller grassroots campaign called Tactical2017, led by Becky Snowden, a 28-year-old digital marketing worker, are also underway.

Soon, these efforts will collide with reality: With 24 days until the vote, the Conservatives still lead Labour by 19 points. Of course, nothing is certain. May needs to overcome her own, sometimes-clumsy campaigning. Perhaps even more importantly, she needs Brits to overcome fatigue—the June 8 election will be their fourth major vote in three years. (In an interview with the BBC that quickly went viral, Bristol resident Brenda seemed to capture the general lack of enthusiasm: “You’re joking. Not another one! Oh, for god’s sake. Honestly, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment. Why does she need to do it?”) On the other hand, May’s ongoing bickering with European officials could be just the reminder Leavers need, for all intents and purposes, to vote in favor of Brexit once more.

The snap vote could be something of a legacy election for May. Projections show she is likely to increase her Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority from 17 to potentially over 100 seats, which would stave off a re-election campaign until 2022, three years after Brexit negotiations are scheduled to conclude. Without expanding her majority in Parliament, she might not be able to pass the final exit deal. “She had promised to go back to Parliament with the deal she got [with the EU], and Labour promised to vote against it. It would only take a small rebellion from Tories for that deal be rejected in the House of Commons, and if that happened, she would have had to resign,” Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London, told me. “[The election] means that she’s likely to get the Brexit deal passed.”

Simon Hix, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics, said that if Brits believe a May victory is a foregone conclusion, turnout could be as low as it was in 2001, the last time a general-election result seemed so certain, when just 58 percent of voters cast a ballot. Of course, a lack of enthusiasm among Labour voters for party leader Jeremy Corbyn could also lead them to stay home: A recent focus group of British voters described him as “scary,” “silly,” “a joke,” and “a wet blanket,” while May’s Conservatives are more popular than they have been in a half century.

If turnout is low among those who voted for Brexit, and if liberal voters mobilize in time, “then things could actually get interesting,” Hix said. “If the lower-income, less-educated voters don’t turn out, and if you get mobilization from the pro-Europeans ... then tactical voting will kick in much more.” 14,000 voters have already signed up to join the Liberal Democrats, who are the most ardent in their opposition to Brexit, the election was announced, driving party membership to a historic high.

Another reason voters may stay home is that the general election is being framed on all sides as a reprisal of the Brexit referendum. While Brexit’s aftermath might be laced with some regret, most Brits still view it as a decisive vote, with a rising majority of voters preferring that the government “get on with implementing the result of the referendum.” Pippa Norris, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said that “people don't want [the general election], but you can understand from the conservative position why Theresa May thought it was a good idea. But for most of the public, they just sigh and say, ‘Oh, not this year. Thank you very much.’”

Polling data, Hix said, suggests that in recent British elections, about one-quarter of people vote not for their preferred party, but for the one closest to their views that has the best chance of winning. Yet if strategic voting has any impact on this year’s result, it is likely to help May’s Conservatives rather than the Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition candidates, with former UKIP voters throwing their support behind the Conservatives, the party that is actually delivering Brexit.

Despite May’s considerable advantages, the early days of the campaign have not been without missteps. She has already come under fire for appearing reluctant to greet the public during appearances in Cornwall, Bristol, and Leeds; she is still virtually certain to win, but in setting the election, she may have overplayed her hand.

No matter how the vote goes, its outcome is unlikely to sway the EU, which has maintained a consistent position throughout the Brexit process: no talk on trade before issues like EU migrants’ rights are resolved, and certainly no “painless” departure from the European market. If the reports of May’s dinner with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week are true, she does not seem to have quite realized that. Juncker left his meeting with May at 10 Downing with the impression that May was living in “a different galaxy” by thinking Britain could take an “a la carte” approach to choosing which EU regulations to keep, and that a U.K.-EU trade deal would be feasible within two years.

Ultimately, Hix said, Brexit’s final form will be determined not by May, parliament, or the British people but by the EU. “They'll give us a take-it-or-leave-it deal, and we'll take it, because we'll have to,” he said. At its core, the election is about domestic politics, about enabling May to pursue a platform of her own making. “The real Theresa May will be able to stand up,” Hix said. The question is, given an unassailable mandate, how will she use it? Will she follow a moderate course, or will she pursue a vigorous platform of social conservatism?

Miller knows a win by the Conservatives is likely inevitable. So she’s focusing on trimming their majority to hold them accountable. “It was very telling when [May] made the election speech. She said there's no going back. By doing that, she's putting herself above the law, above parliament,” Miller said when we spoke. “Westminster is not an echo chamber. There's supposed to be debate and disagreement.” Brexit, she acknowledges, is here to stay, but the form it takes is still to be determined. “It's dated to talk about remaining and staying—we have to be realistic about where we are,” Miller said. “But the logical approach, if you take a step back, is that unless politicians are blessed with prophetic superpowers, no one knows what the future will be.”