How a Conservative win might soften rather than harden Brexit

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In the 24 hours since UK Prime Minster Teresa May announced her intention to call a snap General Election, pundits have been pondering her real motivation.

In her address on the steps outside 10 Downing Street, she said her party needed a stronger mandate in Europe and to unite Westminster behind her as she fights to get the best deal for the UK in the likely torrid and acrimonious Brexit negotiations.

Some doubt this because the parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t really back it up. She already has a majority of 17 over all other parties.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party is solidly pro-Brexit and has has eight seats, making that a 33 vote majority in reality. Independent Douglas Carswell is a Brexiter who only resigned from UKIP last month. Sinn Fein’s 4 MPs don’t show up, so in effect, there is a Brexit majority of 39; 40 once you remove the Speaker who does not vote.

If that wasn’t safe enough, bizarrely the Labour Party, the Official Opposition, has vowed not to oppose Brexit making it somewhat unforeseeable that she might ever suffer a commons defeat on this matter. That said, a change of leader on the opposition benches could alter that stance.

Looking elsewhere for motivations, there are three possible factors Mrs May might have included in her thinking. We will look at one each on consecutive days.

Starting with the Brexit themed one, the desire for a larger majority may not be rooted where it superficially may seem.

1) A better negotiating hand for a “soft” Brexit

Although the anti-EU MPs on the Conservative right are very vocal, there is a significant rump of Conservatives who are pro-EU, once including Mrs May herself. It was her support for the Remain side in the Referendum that saw her emerge as a viable compromise candidate for the party leadership after the more divisive options like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson had fallen by the wayside.

The Conservative Party, like so many centre-right parties in Northern Europe, exists primarily to support the business community. Unlike the US Republicans, it does not have the distractions of a religious lobby, a military lobby or a gun lobby to placate.

Occasionally the Party has to pander to dog-whistle racism but not very often and not in a way that those who have observed Republican attempts to stop blacks from even voting in the US south would recognise. Moreover the Conservative Party only does that when it has to, to prevent voter seepage to more dangerously racist parties.

Mostly, the Party is pro-business, anti Trade Union and relatively pro free market. Therefore, there are a significant amount of Conservative MPs and voters who were solid Remainers, especially around London and southern England.

They fear that losing access to the EU single Market would hurt UK business, and don’t feel altogether comfortable with the hostility to immigrants and refugees, occasionally exhibited to their right. Normally this view point is associated with moderate or centrist Conservatives, though that is mildly over simplistic.

Although this group has mainly been quiet since the Referendum, Mrs May knows she cannot take them for granted. Theoretically, if Labour ever decided to oppose, there is a small potential for a parliamentary defeat with a majority of just 17. That possibility remains small though, as potential rebels would only emerge if their own constituencies voted to Remain.

It is not fear of being held hostage by the pro-Europeans on her benches and beyond that motivated Tuesday’s announcement. What may be uppermost in May’s mind is that a large majority could give her cover to ignore those seeking a Hard Brexit (with few compromises) on the right of her party. That gives her a much stronger negotiating hand, knowing that she is not tied to a hard line position. More importantly, the EU would no longer have the advantage of seeing her backed into a Hard Brexit corner due to domestic political difficulties.

It also reduces the chances for an irritating but embarrassing defeat in the House of Lords. But most importantly, it allows Mrs May to protect that interest which is most dear to the traditional hearts of the Conservative Party, the British business community.

In a round-about unthinkable way, a large Conservative win may give her the flexibility to make concessions on matters like immigration to save UK business from the worst consequences of Brexit without worrying about the angry mob on her political right.

With the hardcore anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) being in internal turmoil, there is also a timely opportunity to rid herself of that electoral threat permanently while she negotiates the deal.

This brings us to tomorrow’s article, the second reason why Mrs May took the gamble. The opinion polls look very good for her party, and very very bad for Labour.

 

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