The general election isn’t just about Brexit

This article was published before the local elections at


“You’re joking?! Not another one? Oh for God’s sake I can’t, honestly, I can’t stand this.” So said a lady called Brenda, from the British city of Bristol, when told by a local journalist of Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an unexpected general election for 8 June. “There’s too much politics going on at the moment,” she added.

Brenda is not alone in that assessment. After a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, a general election in 2015, and another referendum on EU membership in 2016 — followed closely by the vicarious excitement of the Trump-Clinton showdown in the U.S. — many in Britain feel they have endured quite enough campaigning for the time being.

Having become Prime Minister after David Cameron’s resignation following the EU referendum, May had repeatedly denied that she was planning to go to the country early. The move had looked even less likely because of the UK’s Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, which provides for a general election every five years unless two-thirds of members of parliament (MPs) vote to dissolve parliament early. (In fact May won the vote easily the day after her announcement, with no party wanting to seem frightened of facing the people). So, in the further words of Brenda, “Why does she need to do it?”

The Prime Minister’s answer is that there is division in Westminster at a time when there should be unity, especially over the government’s negotiating position in Europe. Others doubt this rationale, pointing instead to May’s command of the political scene and a shambolic and demoralized Labour opposition (“What it it about the 20-point opinion poll lead that first attracted you to the idea of an early election?” one BBC journalist cheekily asked her).

Whatever the true motive, many expect a landslide majority for her Conservative Party, or “Tories.” It’s easy to see why: my recent research found May with a 37-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, on who would make the best Prime Minister; the Tories are by far the most trusted to manage the economy and negotiate Brexit.

Polls can be wrong — and following Cameron’s unexpected victory in 2015 and Brexit a year later, no-one will be more nervous on election night than a pollster — but even if we can assume a comfortable Conservative lead, it is not easy to translate the parties’ national vote share into what really matters: the number of seats they will each win in the House of Commons. Unlike a presidential election in the U.S., our general election is not a nationwide battle between two great forces, but 650 local skirmishes between parties hoping to protect or extend their territories.

The Tories will certainly be hoping to take seats from Labour. But some Conservative MPs, too, could be vulnerable, especially where the principal opponents are the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems were all but wiped out two years ago – losing 49 of their 57 seats – as voters passed judgment on their part in David Cameron’s coalition government. The party is now campaigning on a pledge to salvage as many as possible of Britain’s ties with the E.U., including membership of the single market and freedom of movement (the automatic right for a citizen of one E.U. country to live and work in another). In doing so they hope to become the party of Remain voters who wish the referendum result could be reversed (Labour has pledged only to fight for the “best possible Brexit,” aware that many of their core constituents in northern and working-class areas backed Leave). This may bring them some successes, especially in affluent suburban Tory constituencies, and some metropolitan Labour seats, which voted heavily against Brexit last year.

This strategy depends on voters considering Brexit the key issue of the day, but that often isn’t the case. My polling has found that while voters think negotiating Brexit on the right terms is the most important issue facing the country, it falls to third – behind the National Health Service and the cost of living – when we ask people what matters to themselves and their family. Parties who declare that an election is about one thing often find the voters deciding it is about something else altogether.

That lesson also applies to the Conservatives, who need a broad coalition of both Remain and Leave voters to achieve the big majority they want. The party’s campaign theme is “strong and stable leadership”, a humdrum slogan that nevertheless sums up what many neutrals have come to associate with Theresa May. But if the Tories are hoping that the PM’s determination to get on with Brexit will be enough to bring over Leave voters from other parties, they may be disappointed: many feel the question has been settled and they need not bother about it any further.

This view is especially threatening to UKIP, the party previously led by Nigel Farage which was set up with the aim of taking Britain out of the E.U., and which won nearly 13 per cent of the vote last time round. “Job done”, say many of the party’s former supporters, and indeed its only MP, who is standing down. Whether 2015 UKIP supporters switch to the Tories or stay at home will also affect the size of the new government’s majority.

In fact, the very expectation of a huge Conservative victory could be self-defeating. In 2015, the expectation that things could be close persuaded people to come out and pick sides. This time, voters who want and expect Mrs. May to stay in Downing Street might feel they can afford to vote for friendly local candidates from other parties. Some may even deliberately vote to ensure the Tories don’t get to govern unopposed.

There are very few risk-free decisions in politics. Theresa May’s gambit should see her authority enhanced, but a rout is far from guaranteed. If Brexit and Trump have taught us anything, it is that you don’t know the result until the votes are counted.


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