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May resists pressure to call early British election to bolster Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May, at 10 Downing Street, has pledged not to hold a general election until 2020.

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Prime Minister Theresa May, at 10 Downing Street, has pledged not to hold a general election until 2020.

LONDON — Theresa May, Britain’s accidental prime minister, seems unassailable, with her opposition in disorder.

But there are increasing uncertainties around Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and an inevitable gathering of opposition to her decision to go for a hard break with the bloc, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland but also, increasingly, in England.

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A bill to allow the government to start its formal notice of resignation from the European Union, known as Brexit, is wending its way through Parliament. With noisy bouts of disagreement from the House of Lords, pressure is growing on May, of the Conservative Party, to call an early general election to solidify her narrow majority in the House of Commons while the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats remain in disarray.

May has vowed that she will invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March, beginning the two-year process of withdrawing from the European Union. She may do it even sooner, before the other 27 nations of the European Union gather in Rome on March 25 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the founding of the bloc. Some are urging her to call for an election at the same time.

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However, May has vowed not to hold an election before the next scheduled vote, in May 2020. And she is usually described as someone with contempt for those who treat promises as ephemeral.

But the temptation is strong, articulated this week by William Hague, the former Conservative Party leader, speaking for other Tory legislators, who urged her to capitalize on Labour’s woes.

Given the challenges of the Brexit negotiations, new agitation for independence in Scotland, anxiety about the Irish border, and a Trump administration, Hague argued that she and her government would be in a much stronger position “if they had a large and decisive majority in the Commons and a new full term ahead of them.”

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An election “would catch the Labour Party in its worst condition since the early ’30s, and with its least credible leader ever,” Hague wrote, referring to Jeremy Corbyn. That, he added, “would strengthen the government’s hand at home and abroad.”

The argument was underlined by May’s second defeat in the House of Lords over the bill authorizing her to invoke Article 50. She insists that she will pass the bill again through the Commons without amendment (judging that the Lords, the advisory chamber, will then accede to it).

That remains most likely. But the amendments reflected wider concern among the political and economic elite of the country that the hard Brexit she envisages — leaving Britain outside the single market and customs union — ought to be subject to some form of credible parliamentary review at the end of the process.

The political mood is febrile, with Northern Ireland’s politics stalemated, anxiety over the future of the border with Ireland, and Scotland talking seriously about another referendum on independence.

Scotland in particular has been upset by the Brexit vote, after having voted resoundingly to remain in the bloc. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, told the BBC on Thursday that autumn 2018 was “the common sense time” to hold a referendum, “if that is the road we choose to go down.”

So the logic of an early election is clear. Given the mess of the Labour Party under Corbyn, and the weakness of the Liberal Democrats, May’s Conservatives might be able to win a majority of 100 or so in the Commons, a much safer figure than now, which is a working majority of 17.

A larger majority would take a lot of the pressure off May in the Brexit negotiations, which are clearly going to be difficult and are unlikely to produce the glorious outcome that some in Britain imagined in June, when they voted for “independence” from the European Union.

There would be another benefit. May, who became prime minister in a foreshortened vote of her own party when David Cameron suddenly quit, after he was on the losing side of the Brexit referendum, would be able to claim a personal mandate on her own platform. A larger majority would also dim any prospect of a parliamentary rebellion in 2019, when a final Brexit bill would presumably come to a vote.

Hague pointed to the complexity of Brexit, saying that “any deal is bound to be full of compromises which one group or another in Parliament finds difficult to stomach.” And “as British law needs to be amended countless times to take account of leaving the EU treaties, the government could face many close votes, concessions or defeats as it tries to implement Brexit.”

And that perceived weakness, he judged, “will embolden the EU negotiators, and makes an agreement that is good for the UK harder to achieve.”

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