Finding a mandate for Brexit

For those hoping for a respite from high-stakes democratic exercises until at least 2020, today’s vote for an early election on 8 June will come as a disappointment. However, despite the wearing effects of a seemingly endless cycle of elections after referendums after leadership contests, it is difficult to argue against Theresa May’s decision to call an election on democratic grounds.

May’s stated logic for calling a new election is shaky – her argument that the Government is facing considerable opposition to carrying out Brexit is not supported by the relatively easy passage of the Article 50 Bill through both Houses and a new election is likely to increase the number of Liberal Democrats, the most vocally anti-Brexit party. On top of this, her motivation for calling an election is certainly less than pure – the Conservatives have an almost unprecedented poll lead and a landslide victory in their sights. An election victory now will also stop the next election from taking place immediately after the Article 50 negotiation period closes. But regardless of the reasons for this election, a new opportunity to head to the polls will put to rest questions over Theresa May’s mandate.

Far from being a continuity Government delivering on the promises of Cameron’s 2015 manifesto, May has taken the Conservative Party in a new direction, both in terms of tone and policy choices. Policies such as the return of grammar schools and the modification of Osborne’s fiscal rules do not have a basis in the 2015 Conservative manifesto and should be supported by a new mandate.

May also needs to find a way to legitimise her vision for Brexit. The Conservative Government has argued that the EU referendum result amounts to a rejection of aspects of the EU, such as the free movement of people and the customs union, but these questions were never on the ballot paper and no consensus can be inferred from the result. A General Election now gives Theresa May the opportunity to put these questions to the electorate and ask them to vote on it.

Of course, on Brexit, it is not quite so straightforward. In traditional party politics, each party will take a distinct and coherent position on hot-button topics. A vote for a particular party indicates support for their position on that issue, forming the basis of a democratic mandate. But on Brexit, neither the Parliamentary parties nor their respective voter bases can claim to have a coherent position on Brexit; the issue crosses party lines and is simply too nebulous to align comfortably within the present party system. This makes an election fought on the basis of providing a mandate for a particular version of Brexit practically impossible.

This is not to say that Theresa May should dodge the issue. Quite the opposite, the election must provide a forum for an open and wide-ranging debate about what the EU referendum result means for Britain. Ultimately, an election is the right thing to do for the UK’s democracy. The EU referendum result, and all of the turmoil it entailed, has changed politics. A new election is necessary to reflect that. MPs will be campaigning in their constituencies, hearing directly from the people they represent, and the parties will have to come up with ways to unite their divided voter bases.

However, from a democratic perspective, the greatest danger is that Theresa May will seek to use the election, and her party’s likely landslide victory, to legitimise an approach to Brexit that can’t possibly have a claim to democratic legitimacy. If the Conservative manifesto does not attempt to unite the many Brexit factions, within her own party as well as in the country at large, the election will look like a naked power-grab rather than the exercise in democracy it should be.