Will UK Prime Minister May's election gamble backfire?
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On the eve of the start of its all-important Brexit negotiations, the last thing the United Kingdom can afford is a prolonged period of political uncertainty. Yet, judging by recent electoral polls, that is something that could very well occur should Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party not substantially increase its parliamentary majority in the snap elections on June 8.

On five separate occasions since replacing David Cameron as prime minister a year ago, May ruled out the desirability of calling early elections. However, on April 17, she changed her mind. It seemed that she could no longer resist the temptation of taking advantage of the increasing disarray in the opposition Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s shaky leadership.

The ostensible reason that May gave for calling the election was that she needed to strengthen the country’s Brexit negotiating position by receiving a strong mandate from the electorate.

In the days immediately following the calling of the snap election, the electoral polls seemed to vindicate May’s decision. They showed that her party was a full 20 percentage points ahead of the opposition Labor Party. On that basis, it was widely expected that her party would win those elections by the largest landslide in recent memory and thereby substantially increase her parliamentary majority.

Sadly for May, things have not been working out for her as well as she had hoped. As a result of a number of her own missteps, including her ill-advised proposal of a highly unpopular “dementia tax”, May’s large lead in the polls has now largely evaporated.

Indeed, some polls are now showing her party is less than 5 percentage points ahead of the opposition at the national level and well behind the opposition in London. On the basis of those polls, May is still very likely to win next week’s election, but she could see a significant reduction in the parliamentary majority that her party presently enjoys.

It has not helped May that Corbyn has managed to run a much better electoral campaign than his many critics had expected. In addition, reminiscent of Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSchumer: Franken should resign Franken resignation could upend Minnesota races Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign MORE’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign, Corbyn’s far-left electoral promises of re-nationalizing key industries, imposing high taxes on the rich and increasing social spending are resonating with large parts of the electorate — and with young voters in particular.

Central to May’s electoral campaign has been the claim that she is the person best equipped to secure the most favorable Brexit deal for the country. However, the way that this election is going, that claim could prove to be one lacking in any real substance.

Should May’s parliamentary majority be reduced and should she find that the Conservative Party’s backbenches become increasingly peopled by Eurosceptic members, far from being strengthened, her Brexit negotiating position in Europe would be meaningfully weakened. Worse yet, much of her electoral rhetoric might preclude any real concessions from her European counterparts.

One must imagine that her repeated claims that no Brexit deal would be better than a bad deal will not sit well with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Nor is it likely that they will take kindly to her repeated electoral pledges that she will highly restrict the free movement of labor to the United Kingdom from the continent, and that the U.K. will not abide by the decisions of the European Court of Justice.

There is also the real danger that a narrow electoral victory, not to mention an electoral loss, could usher in a renewed period of U.K. political uncertainty. May might then learn, as Margaret Thatcher learned before her, that the Conservative Party is not known for its kindness to its leaders when they are perceived to have made serious blunders.

Should the party judge that she squandered a golden opportunity to win a landslide election victory, May must expect the long knives of her opponents to be drawn for her removal.

May must be hoping that, this time, the U.K. electoral polls will prove to be as wrong as they were on a number of previous occasions. However, if they do not prove to be wrong, she should fear for her job and we should start bracing ourselves for another round of political uncertainty from the sceptered isle.     

Desmond Lachman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly a deputy director in the International Monetary Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department and the chief emerging market economic Strategist at Salomon Smith Barney.


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