- Theresa May warns of a “deliberately timed [EU campaign] to affect the result of the general election.”
- May’s Downing Street speech wins positive headlines in British tabloid press.
- Yet other EU countries have little or no interest in swinging UK elections.
- Rhetoric will significantly increase chances of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.
LONDON — Theresa May on Wednesday accused unnamed European politicians and officials of conspiring to swing the general election against the Conservatives.
“Britain’s negotiating position has been misrepresented in the continental press,” May said.
“The European Commission’s negotiating stance has hardened, threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials. All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the UK general election that will take place on the 8th June.”
The intervention is a bizarre and worrying one for several reasons.
It’s little more than a conspiracy theory
Of course, May is free to claim that her position has been “misrepresented” by the EU press. Individual newspapers do misrepresent politicians from time to time and accounts of her conversation with Jean-Claude Juncker may, or may not, have been falsely briefed or misreported. These things happen. However, her claim that this has been “deliberately timed” to swing the general election result is a bizarre one reminiscent of the worst kind of fringe conspiracy theory. As with all such grand conspiracy theories, the first questions you must ask is how and why anyone would actually bother to attempt such a thing? And here the answers are clear.
The EU has no reason to swing the election
Both the major political parties in the UK are now pro-Brexit. Both voted to trigger Article 50, both want to come out of the Single Market and both want to end freedom of movement from the EU. Indeed, until last summer, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was significantly and openly more Eurosceptic than May herself. Given the power and left to his own devices, Corbyn would have taken the UK out of the EU decades ago.
So even if the EU had the power to swing the election against the Conservatives, which given that the party is up to 23 points ahead seems a big ask, why would they bother?
The EU doesn’t care about the size of Theresa May’s ‘mandate’
May called this general election with the claimed intent of seeking to “strengthen her mandate” in Brexit negotiations. There are two obvious problems with this.
- EU politicians have mandates of their own.
- Weakening May’s mandate is not in their interest.
When the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis began negotiations with the EU, he too boasted of his mandate from the Greek people. It didn’t carry much water.
As Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schauble quickly informed him: “It’s your [mandate] against mine.”
As May herself will soon discover, the mandates of other European leaders matter a great deal more to them than hers. If EU leaders believe it’s in their own electoral interest to give Britain a good deal then they will do so. If they don’t, then they won’t. Either way, the question of whether May has a 10 or 100 seat majority is irrelevant.
However, a big Conservative victory might actually help the EU
The prime minister currently has a working majority of just 17. If she had clung on until 2020, without calling a general election, then she would almost certainly have come under huge and crippling pressure from her own increasingly hardline Eurosceptic backbenchers. If on the other hand, May returns to Parliament with a much bigger majority then it will significantly take that pressure off.
Senior EU figures are aware of this. As Juncker’s close aide Martin Selmayr said yesterday in reaction to May’s comments: “We need a strong negotiator [in Downing Street] — someone who unites the entire nation behind her.”
In some ways, a big win for May could actually make it more likely that Britain secures a mutually-agreeable deal with EU, rather than less.
So who benefits?
The more you look at May’s conspiracy theory the more it starts to fall apart, which begs the question as to what the purpose of it was. The first possibility is that May genuinely believes that the EU are trying to meddle in UK elections. This would be worrying as it would suggest a level of sheer paranoia in Britain’s prime minister that would not bode well for the coming years.
The other possibility is that she doesn’t really believe it, but is pretending to believe it in order to gain short-term electoral advantage. If this is true, then it certainly appears to be working. If Conservative campaign headquarters had been charged with editing Thursday’s newspaper front pages they would hardly have changed a word.
But while the electoral benefit of May’s intervention may be clear, the longer-term political benefits are less so.
By accusing other EU countries of meddling in British elections, May has damaged relations with our EU allies at precisely the time when they need to be at their strongest.
And while taking this stance now may increase her popularity in the short term, in the long term it will only serve to further stoke up public expectations about the sort of Brexit deal that she is able to achieve.
Public expectations about the deal May can achieve are already wildly out of line with what is possible. Recent opinion polling suggests that the public wants to maintain existing full free trade with the EU, while also wanting complete immigration control. The EU have repeatedly made it clear that such a deal won’t be on offer.
Not only has May’s intervention increased those unrealistic public expectations, the manner in which she has intervened will now make it even harder for her to meet them.
And while such hardline rhetoric may win her good headlines in the short term, they will only increase the already high chances of Britain crashing out of the EU on the worst and most damaging terms.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.
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