The Brexit Election That Wasn't

It was supposed to be about leaving the EU. But then something changed.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech to Conservative Party members.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech to Conservative Party members. (Andrew Yates / Reuters)

At the heart of Britain’s election, there is an absence. In a campaign which has been knocked sideways by terrorist violence, cack-handed U.S. presidential interventions, and some extraordinary acts of political self-harm, it is the one true constant: No one says anything meaningful about Brexit.

From outside the U.K., it seems absurd. In under two years’ time, unless the government can secure a transitional arrangement, the country will drop out the European Union without a deal. And then things get really messy.

Customs stations and hard borders would suddenly spring up in areas which haven't had them for decades, including Ireland. Brexit would detonate like a bomb on the global trading network. No regulators would have been set up to replace the EU ones, triggering chaos across markets, from pharmaceuticals to aviation. It’s not even clear that tourist visas to the continent would be available without further action. With no sign that the government plans to offer a guarantee of residence, we can’t rule out the possibility that millions of European citizens will be forced to leave the U.K. Similarly, we don’t yet know if another million and a half U.K. citizens living in Europe will have to return home.

In short, it could be a moment of profound national humiliation, with billions lost in trade and investment. But in the waning days of the election, the candidates have barely discussed Brexit. It is like a bad smell at an elegant dinner party.

Given that this was supposed to be a Brexit election, this is a rather strange turn of events. When May strode out from Downing Street and announced the vote in mid-April, she presented it as an opportunity to secure a mandate for Brexit talks and silence her dissenters in parliament. Both arguments were nonsensical. Brussels signaled that it was completely indifferent as to any mandate she might have, and anyway, she had already initiated the formal process for leaving the EU by triggering Article 50. Any internal dissent had already failed.

The real reason May wanted an election was to take advantage of the abysmal poll ratings of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a hard leftist who had been swept into political leadership by a sudden swell of Bernie-Sanders-like youthful idealism. He is presentationally catastrophic, lacks any sense of the mercilessness you need for day-to-day political operations, and has a string of appalling judgments in his past, including ones concerning the IRA and Hamas. He is the sort of person a conservative prime minister would invent if they could conjure an opponent from scratch.

So May triggered the election, hoping to significantly expand her slim 17-seat majority. Her proposition was simple: Who would you prefer in the negotiating room: Corbyn or her? May was confident the public would go for the latter.

But things did not go quite as she expected. In late May, a terrorist killed 23 people, including himself, at a pop concert in Manchester using an improvised explosive device. Last weekend, there was another atrocity, this time involving van and knife attacks on London Bridge. Pundits presumed the attacks would shift the election debate to security, and therefore help May. After all, she was the law and order candidate. Corbyn seemed to have never met an anti-Western terrorist organization he hadn't liked.

In reality, things were more complicated. May had been in charge of Britain’s internal security as the secretary of the Home Office for years before becoming prime minister, and in that time had overseen cuts to the police. Journalists started asking questions about her record.

Then Donald Trump started tweeting. The American president is awful to his enemies, but even worse to his friends. Back when May visited him in January, she offered him the honor of a state visit to the U.K.—a hard sell, given that right- and left-wing Brits alike despise Trump. The invitation now haunts her.

After the London Bridge attack, Trump launched a personal campaign against the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Brits were startled. They were used to seeing America as a close friend. The sight of a U.S. president attacking the mayor of London after a terrorist attack in his city was astonishing. But for May it was even worse. She had thrown in her lot with Trump. Everything he now did reflected on her judgment. Press conferences were now dominated by journalists asking whether she would rescind the invitation of a state visit.

But May had more problems—she was also failing on an individual level. She introduced a policy which forced the elderly to use their assets to pay for their end-of-life care after their death, up to the last £100,000. In tabloid-speak, this translated to: The government will take your house after you die if you get dementia. It seemed almost designed to alienate the over-65s, a demographic which breaks hard for the Conservatives and is disciplined about voting. After a few days of increasing alarm among Conservative strategists, May backed down.

She’d never been a particularly confident media performer, but the reversal seemed to take the wind out of her. Suddenly she appeared horribly nervous on TV, laughing mirthlessly at critical questions and then grimacing. Her mojo, in so far as she ever had it, was gone. The results were startling. At the start of the campaign she enjoyed an astonishing 24-point lead. Just weeks later, some pollsters put it at one percent.

But political screw-ups and unforeseen events only partly explain the Brexit-election-which-wasn’t. The rest of it was a conscious strategy. May was trying to hold an election on a subject which she all but refused to discuss.

Her Brexit argument was not really intellectual or even ideological—it was tonal. The intention was to project an image of control, without having to grapple with the issues which Brexit actually entailed.

Just like Trump, May is pretending that difficult questions have easy answers. Sometimes this verges on utter meaninglessness, like when she repeatedly insists that “Brexit means Brexit.” Sometimes it is simply false, like when she says “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But actually, this massaging of public feeling has proved quite popular, and far easier than discussing the brutal reality of Brexit.

May has been able to get away with it due to two advantages which Trump does not posses: a supportive press and opposition party. Most newspapers in the U.K. are fully behind the Brexit process, so they do not ask May any difficult questions on the issue. And Labour also largely supports Brexit, so it has no incentive to challenge her on it.

By Wednesday night, May was projected to win in the biggest landslide since Margaret Thatcher. After today, the election will be over and she will claim that the vote is a mandate for her plan. But she has not actually deigned to tell the British people her plan. Instead, she is asking for a mandate on her judgment, which has a certain irony given that it has been shown to be deeply flawed over the course of the campaign.

As for Corbyn, failure is not necessarily what it once was in British politics. Where party leaders used to typically stand down after losing an election, he is likely to stay. There will probably be a leadership contest, but it seems likely that his supporters in the Labour party will continue to support him, in the Trump-like belief that it is media bias—not voter preference—which has kept him from Downing Street. He is unlikely to challenge May over Brexit any more after the election than he had done beforehand.

Days after the results, those Brexit talks will begin in Brussels. And then it will be impossible to hide the realities of what Britain has chosen to do. What the Brexit election did not provide will be left to the cold, hard slap of economic and political reality.