Theresa May’s Election Opportunity

Will she offer Britain a vision that meets the Brexit moment?


Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday.

Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street on Tuesday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Theresa May surprised her countrymen Tuesday by calling for a new British election on June 8, and it’s a reasonable if daring bet. The Prime Minister wants a new and larger majority in Parliament as she negotiates Britain’s departure from the European Union. Let’s hope she uses the campaign to offer a vision for a competitive Britain that meets the post-Brexit challenge.

The next election wasn’t scheduled until 2020, and the safer play was to negotiate Brexit first. But Mrs. May is still living with David Cameron’s pre-Brexit Tory majority, and she figures she’ll be in a stronger negotiating position if she can win a larger majority in her own right. You have to admire her nerve, and her faith in democracy, especially in this era of populist surprises.

Mrs. May continues to be popular since taking over from Mr. Cameron last year, and her Tories lead in the polls. Markets reacted well to Mrs. May’s election news, with the pound rising on expectations that she will be able to grow the current 17-seat Tory majority. 

She is also striking when the Labour Party is divided under Jeremy Corbyn. The unreconstructed socialist is nostalgic for nationalized railroads and a union-dominated economy that modern Britain long ago left behind. His foreign policy is of the global left, with a soft spot for Hamas and dislike for NATO. Many Labour MPs think Mr. Corbyn didn’t do enough to fight Brexit last year, so he has his own challenge laying out a coherent post-Brexit policy.

Then again, anything can happen in a democracy, especially these days. Britain has more than a little post-Brexit anxiety and even buyer’s remorse. Some of this is the uncertainty of change but some relates to real economic developments since the Brexit vote.

The plunge in the pound since last summer is expected to push inflation above 3% this year. Wages aren’t keeping up, and households feel the squeeze. Business confidence is flagging as the EU’s line on trade talks has hardened and the difficulty of concluding other trade deals comes into focus. Separatism is flaring again in Scotland.

Mrs. May’s challenge amid this ferment will be articulating a vision of what Brexit is for. Economic liberalizers supported Brexit as a way to free Britain from EU statism, but that hasn’t been Mrs. May’s governing identity. She has been offering a form of Christian-democratic solidarity instead of Thatcherite reform and a new dynamic Britain. Immigration restrictionists supported Brexit to preserve Britain’s national identity, but Mrs. May now admits Britain will continue to need immigrants.

Mrs. May is hoping an election victory will help her transcend those differences and present a united Tory government in talks with the EU. But to win that majority she’ll need to offer a vision of a greater Britain than the kind of communitarian conservatism she has offered so far. Her politics is dominating the political center in Britain, thanks in part to Mr. Corbyn’s incompetence and radicalism.

But the economic and political challenges of Brexit are so formidable that Mrs. May will need to challenge the public to take risks to meet the competitive moment. Britain can’t succeed as a solo version of the EU welfare state. It can only prosper post-Brexit if it becomes a mecca for investment and human capital. Mrs. May wants a mandate to negotiate, but she’ll be in a stronger position if she also has a mandate for pro-growth reform. She should ask for it.

Appeared in the Apr. 19, 2017, print edition.

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