British Politics

Timing Is Everything

May 19, 2017

Even in Scotland, where there was a 62–38 majority for continued E.U. membership and where the governing Scottish National Party was committed to the E.U., Europe has played little part in the election. The Scottish Conservatives’ leader, Ruth Davidson, campaigned vigorously and effectively for Remain, on one TV appearance eviscerating Boris Johnson to the delight of pro-European viewers. But now Johnson is foreign secretary, and in this election Ms. Davidson has scarcely said a word about Europe. Instead she has concentrated, wisely, on the defense of the United Kingdom, opposing the SNP’s plan for a second Scottish independence referendum for which she says, not entirely truthfully, there is no demand. Given that her party is rising in the polls and is on course to take a handful of seats from the SNP, she has evidently chosen well, got her timing right. For the first time in years she has put the SNP on the defensive.

Of course, nobody knows yet how the Brexit negotiations will go. Nobody knows how we will fare outside the E.U., and indeed the answer to that question won’t be known till some years after our departure. Brexit may be the success that Mrs. May now assures us it will be; or it may not. Likewise, nobody knows whether Macron’s influence may indeed lead to the reform and rejuvenation of the E.U. It’s quite possible that, depending on the answer to these questions, pro-E.U. sentiment will revive in Britain. Indeed some would say that, given the age profile of the two sides in the E.U. referendum, with a majority of the young backing Remain, such a revival is likely. But the time is not ripe for such a revival, and for the moment, Brexit rules. Theresa May has calculated well.

Meanwhile, Remainers can only speculate on how things might have been if David Cameron had timed things differently, if we were voting next month in the E.U. referendum rather than a general election, and doing so in the light of Macron’s victory in France and the promise of real reform of the E.U. And David Cameron himself might reflect that he would still be prime minister if he had waited longer before asking us to choose between continued membership in the E.U. and Brexit.

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