Just when we thought the dust had settled in the UK and we could get on with Brexit negotiations, Theresa May has surprised the country by calling a snap general election. Unlike the 2015 election, the winner is not in doubt: the only question is how big May’s victory will be.
The other difference to recent elections is time. Rather than a drawn-out campaign, everything will be in over in seven weeks. There isn’t time to pull together detailed policy proposals – but that won’t matter. This election is about Brexit, and who the electorate trusts to guide the UK through Brexit negotiations. The polls are unambiguous. By a large majority, the electorate think this person is Theresa May.
May Rules Supreme
Pundits are running out of historical comparisons when describing how badly the Labour Party is polling. While polls historically narrow between the start of an election and election day itself, support normally flows from the opposition to the government. If this tendency to shift towards the status quo holds true, May’s lead could even grow as the campaign progresses. While it is too early to write the obituary for the Labour Party, unless they are able to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader it is hard to see them forming a government again.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, with their demand for a second Brexit referendum, are riding on a wave of support from people who are still angry about the first, especially as both the Conservatives and Labour are now committed to leaving the EU. It won’t be enough to take them anywhere near power, but it will chip away at Conservative and especially Labour seats where a sizeable proportion of voters wanted to remain in the EU. No doubt May has already factored this into her plan.
A Government in May’s Image
But while crushing the opposition parties in the election is a win for May, the most important outcome will be to reduce the influence of the right wing of her own party. May’s small majority in the House of Commons means a well-organised group of hard-Brexit supporters are able to hold her to ransom if they perceive her as offering any compromise during Brexit negotiations. A big Conservative majority would dilute their influence, giving her more leeway when it comes to negotiating with the EU, and giving her freedom to make compromises when she thinks they are necessary.
A reshuffle of the government was already expected in the summer, but the election may move up the timetable. For many businesses, this will be the most important impact of the election. Will the same team of Brexiters fill many of the senior jobs, or will she switch them for more diplomatic characters? Will she keep competent technocratic ministers in their jobs, or prefer those who share more of her vision for the country? May does not have a reputation for taking risks, but the surprise announcement of an election is making people reassess her temperament.
Dealing with the Aftermath
While the outcome of the election is not in doubt, all political parties will be spending the next seven weeks looking for policies that will differentiate them from other parties. This is an opportunity for business to get their messages into manifestos, especially as everything will need to be pulled together so quickly. Once the election is over, it will have set how politics looks for the next five years – don’t expect another election once the Brexit negotiations are completed – allowing business to prepare an engagement plan for the new government that chimes with all May’s key message: a strong post-Brexit UK that works for all of us.