Apparently, we are all meant to be experiencing election fever in the United Kingdom. Again.
That is hard to do when it feels like we have had referenda and elections every other week. The populace at large did not appear to share the delight of the media and the political classes as the shortest parliament in 45 years came to an abrupt end, prorogued just shy of two years. Prime Minister Theresa May, after months of saying she may not, would not and never shall, announced that she will go to the country again for a general election on June 8.
The political convention that pertains in Britain has been that general election campaigning runs for three weeks, but all the parties hit their stride rather quickly. The early battle lines became quickly clear—the ruling Conservatives led with “strong and stable leadership” as a hastily concocted party slogan. Wry commentators are already having fun counting how often Mrs. May tries to squeeze these four words into every speech or interview. The operative principle is, as the United States electorate knows only too well, if you say anything often enough it becomes true.
The populace at large did not appear to share the delight of the media and the political classes as the shortest parliament in 45 years came to an abrupt end.
Early in the campaign, Mrs. May refused to participate in any TV debate with other party leaders, the tactic presumably being to get that awkward refusal out of the way first so that it would be forgotten come polling day. Her advisors also told her to get “out and about” the country. So far, this has meant pop-up appearances in carefully-controlled environments filled with local Tory activists, at whom she has talked; saying, of course, “strong and stable” at every opportunity, with just the odd mention, for variety, of “stable and strong.”
Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn hit back with his own slogan, accusing the Tories of being “strong towards the weak, and weak towards the strong,” which was actually rather good and got him a bit of extra airtime. “We welcome the opportunity for an early election,” Mr. Corbyn announced.
Mrs. May’s given reason for calling this snap election, the one that she said she would not call, was to obtain a majority in the Parliament so impressive that European leaders would quake in their clogs then drop any ill-considered opposition to her demands in the Brexit negotiations over the next two years. It did not, however, take the European Union’s chief negotiator, the outspoken and combative Guy Verhofstadt, long to deflate that expectation.
The former Belgian prime minister and lead negotiator for the EU27 (that is, the 28 E.U. member states minus the United Kingdom) on Brexit has made his view plain that even a large majority for May’s Conservatives won’t change a thing. He has thundered that the election of more Tory M.P.s will be, for those “sitting around the table in Brussels,” an “irrelevance.” Going further, he notes that the snap election only came about because of internal feuding within the Conservative Party, as Mrs. May seeks to quash hardline dissenters who would prefer that Britain crash out of the European Union rather than surrender to a negotiated compromise. Mr. Verhofstadt and other European players feel that London does not quite get it yet, failing to realize that the EU27 will carry on without Britain.
On April 29 European Union leaders in fact vowed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder behind their negotiating team during the divorce proceedings with Britain and warned that demands from the U.K. prime minister will be dealt with "firmly."
The 27 EU leaders in Brussels finalized the cornerstones of their negotiating stance a month after the British leader triggered two years of exit talks on March 29. The negotiations themselves are to open shortly after Britain's early election on June 8.
"We now have unanimous support from all the 27 member states and the E.U. institutions, giving us a strong political mandate for these negotiations" under chief negotiator Michel Barnier, E.U. Council President Donald Tusk said.
For her part Mrs. May vowed on May 2 to be a "bloody difficult woman" in talks with the bloc, for good measure deploring what she characterized as E.U. interference in the upcoming British election.
From across the channel, they see impractical expectations and false assumptions here, notably over how the Brits seem to expect to retain many rights and privileges after leaving, outlining negotiating “red lines” accordingly. Some feel that this derives from an unrealistic British self-understanding, one that imagines the United Kingdom still to be a major imperial force, so that London competes only with New York to be the world’s pre-eminent global city. That status could well be devastated if the Brexit negotiations go wrong, but there are those who cling to an idealistic fantasy of Britannia ruling the waves and half of the planet. The other half of the globe, in this worldview, has never been sufficiently grateful.
Meanwhile, guess who came to dinner at Number 10 Downing Street? It was M. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. Inopportunely for the Conservative government—trying to present a British bulldog attitude toward the forthcoming Brexit negotiations both to those Europeans and to the voters here—so too was someone present who had a major German newspaper on speed-dial. In due course, reports emerged that the Downing Street dinner had ended disastrously and not because of lousy British culinary skills. Frustrated by British intransigence on several issues, including a likely “divorce settlement” that could run to as much as 60 billion euros, Mr. Juncker made it known that he left Downing Street “10 times more skeptical than I was before.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung broke the story, soon picked up all over Europe, that each side had clashed over negotiations about negotiations, presumably as the eel pie and mashed potatoes were served. Mr. Juncker had another important German, Frau Angela Merkel, on his own speed-dial. Before you could say “roast beef and parsnips,” she was telling the German Bundestag that Mrs. May is “on a different galaxy” and that London should drop its “illusions” about the future. Mrs. May tried to dismiss it all as “Brussels gossip.”
She did not want strong and stable leadership to look like this.