Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election at a time when her party is riding high in the polls has been widely seen as an opportunity for her to dramatically increase her majority in the House of Commons from a slim 12 seats to potentially triple figures.
Obtaining a greater majority will afford her, it is supposed, an independent mandate to pursue her Brexit agenda, greater credibility when facing the EU27 across the negotiating table and increased leverage against recalcitrant Tory backbenchers in case they should try to exploit her slight majority to wring concessions from the government.
But if May is hoping an increased Commons majority will strengthen her Brexit negotiating position in Brussels, she is likely to be disappointed. The history of party politics and foreign policy in the UK suggests a large parliamentary majority can often prove highly detrimental to obtaining the kind of autonomy May is seeking for the upcoming negotiations.
Over the threshold
To understand this, it’s worth reflecting on why it’s valuable for a governing party to hold seats above the “majority threshold” – that is, what the value of holding more seats is once a government is already in place.
In majority parliamentary systems like the UK, prime ministers are appointed on the back of their ability to command a majority in the legislature. Beyond reaching the majority threshold, additional seats act as a buffer in the legislature. Their value is to allow parties to continue to pass legislation, and to govern effectively, even in cases where their own members abstain or vote with the opposition.
There is a trade-off, however. Because governments with large majorities are more secure they also invite greater criticism. It’s not difficult to see why. For an individual MP, criticising a weak government is potentially hazardous, since it risks precipitating the collapse of that government. John Major was able to skilfully exploit his small majority in June 1993 using precisely this logic, turning a vote on the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty into a vote of confidence in his own government. Faced with a choice between remaining in government or not, the would-be rebels in his party backed the vote.
On the other hand, if the government has a large majority, individual transgressions from the party line become far less costly. MPs who disagree with the government are free to express their displeasure even while their party is in government.
Tony Blair suffered from this paradox during the furore over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Labour members rebelled in their droves. A large number of backbenchers not only voted against the government line, but also continued to vocalise their dissent against government “warmongering”, at considerable embarrassment to Blair. They were able to do it so vocally because the survival of the government was not at stake – Blair had retained a sizeable majority in the 2001 general election.
Foreign policy, foreign problems
The domain of foreign affairs also operates through executive action far more than through legislation. Governments can’t legislate outside their own territory – and international politics works through cutting deals with other governments, so important decisions are often taken without a parliamentary vote.
The upshot is that, in foreign affairs, governments receive few benefits from obtaining additional seats above the majority threshold, since they don’t need to pass legislation to take action. Governments with a large majority find themselves, therefore, more susceptible to backbench dissent without any corresponding benefit from their increased legislative buffer.
The experience of British prime ministers backs up this logic. When Labour prime minister Clement Attlee’s majority dropped precipitously from 145 seats to five, he faced less pressure from the inside. Followers of Aneurin Bevan pulled back from their once intense criticism of Labour’s foreign policy when the need to keep the party in power became the greater priority.
Harold Wilson was also famously anxious about the scale of his victory in the 1966 election. He correctly predicted that it would lead Labour’s radical left wing to increase its attacks on the government. Henry Kissinger would later remark that Wilson’s second government, between 1974 and 1976, was far easier to deal with as a result of its practically non-existent majority, since it forced the backbenchers to be more quiescent.
Nor is the phenomenon limited to Labour leaders. Opposition to Conservative prime minister Anthony Eden’s foreign policy in Europe and the Middle East grew after he increased the Tory majority to 60 in the snap 1955 election (and this before his disastrous campaign in Suez).
The Brexit election
It will be the same for May if (or, more likely, when) she obtains her increased majority on June 8. Tory backbenchers will be emboldened by her victory. They will see no reason not to push harder against some of the compromises May will almost certainly have to make in order to reach a deal with the EU27. They will seek to embarrass her from the backbenches, freed from the constraints of the previously weak Tory position in parliament.
This will harm May’s ability to achieve a “good deal” for the UK. She will probably be pushed into a harder, more nationalistic position – which will be less compatible with Europe’s red lines. That makes the prospect of a deal even less probable.
Likewise, it may become increasingly evident to other European leaders that she doesn’t necessarily have her party on side, potentially undermining May’s credibility – and her legitimacy.
All this is not to say the snap election will be bad for May or the Conservatives. She will increase her own standing within the party and decimate the political opposition (though by doing so she will likely promote reforms within Labour that will come back to haunt her). But her victory won’t help her achieve success in Brexit negotiations, which is perhaps the ultimate test of her premiership. This is the lesson history offers us about the perils of large majorities.