The world’s greatest foreign correspondent John Fisher Burns joined me from the U.K. this AM to discuss Prime Minister May’s decision to call an election in Great Britain on June 8:
HH: The news of the morning comes from Great Britain, where Prime Minister Theresa May has called a snap election on June 8th. She will table the motion tomorrow. She needs 2/3rds of the members of Parliament to move forward with the election. Joining me now from Great Britain, John Fisher Burns, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times, greatest war journalist, I think, alive in the world. John Fisher Burns, welcome, thanks for making time for us on short notice, but this is big news today from Great Britain.
JB: It’s a big surprise, Hugh, not least because Theresa May has repeatedly said since she took office last year, nearly 12 months ago now, that she would not call a general election before the due date for such an election in 2020. The turnaround today has already had some of the leading political commentators in this country using that buzzword now apparently favored in American politics, she lied. But it’s pretty plain that she had very persuasive reasons for doing what she did.
HH: Can you expand and explain what those reasons are, aware that we have Pittsburgh Steeler people in our audience that need a slow education in what it means to run a snap election in Great Britain? And they don’t always turn out the way you expect.
JB: Well, first of all, a government at a general election in normal circumstances has a five year mandate. This government took office less than two years ago on a rather narrow majority. At that time, the Prime Minister was David Cameron. He was unseated by an election that took place last year, a referendum on the European Union. David Cameron wanted Britain to remain in the European Union. The majority of voters, a narrow majority, voted out. So Theresa May inherited the leadership of the Conservative Party and the post of prime minister without herself having a popular mandate. So one of the reasons why she will have done this today is that she’s entering into very complicated, very uncertain negotiations with the European Union over Britain’s departure from the European Union without a personal mandate, a matter for which she has been rebuked numerous times, not least by the prime minister of Scotland, the first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who very much wants Britain to remain part of the European Union. So that’s part of the reason. The other thing is that there are elections coming in this year, very soon in France, the presidential election, an election in Germany in the autumn, which may or may not return Angela Merkel to power. As you know, the United States has a new president, and I think she wanted to have the authority that a fresh mandate at a general election would give her for international negotiations, and give her a firmer standing on the international stage.
HH: John Fisher Burns, the old saying in America at least is all politics are local. I think the new saying is all politics are global. And I am looking at this as a referendum on the leadership of Prime Minister May, and hoping that she is returned to power, because she seems to me to exert an enormous steadying effect on the world. I have great admiration for her. Do you think the average British voter looks at it as a global leadership issue? Or are they going to be voting on housing in, you know, the outlying suburbs and the cost, which is skyrocketing, in London? What is going to be the issue set?
JB: Well, there’s no doubt, there’s no doubt that those issues will play. The local issues will play in this. But Mrs. May herself, at some risk, has already, in her announcement this morning, made this election, this forthcoming election on June 8th effectively a plebiscite on the European Union. In effect, it’s likely to be a second vote on whether or not Britain should remain part of the European Union. That’s risky, because opinion on that is so volatile. There was a only a 4% spread last year in the referendum in favor of leaving Europe. Things have gone much better for the British economy than almost anybody expected in the past 12 months. Britain is prospering, currently. That will help her. But that has a lot to do with the fact that the pound devalued by something close to 20% against the dollar. That has been a tremendous boost to British exports. And the negotiations on the European Union haven’t yet begun, will not now begin in earnest until after this general election. It’s quite plain from what European leaders have said that those are going to be very difficult negotiations. They’re going to cause fresh unrest and division in the United Kingdom, and in the meantime, the polls, because she has done relatively well, in fact, very well in her first year as prime minister, are showing that she has a 20% lead. Her party, the Conservatives, have a 20% lead over the Labour Party opposition in a broad spread of polls. This is absolutely unheard of. If translated into seats at a general election, that would mean that the Conservative Party, in a 625, is it, 650 seat House of Commons, would be returned with a hundred seat majority against the 17 seat majority that they have at the moment. For her not to have called a general election would have itself been something of a personal risk, and reminds us that George Brown, a Labour leader who was briefly and unhappily prime minister between Tony Blair and David Cameron, was in a similar position shortly after he took office with a considerable lead in the opinion polls, and he funked it. He just decided not to go for a general election. Events turned out against him. His personal popularity and the popularity of the Labour Party fell away. Labour lost the general election of 2010, and George Brown, I beg your pardon…
HH: Gordon Brown.
JB: Gordon Brown has hardly been heard from since.
HH: Now let me ask you, John Fisher Burns, there is this in the world an envelope of unease that is now going to surround the United Kingdom’s election. And she is the leader of a world power, and she is widely respected. And against her is a coalition of chaos. I mean, you’ve got Russia and ISIS and Korea, North Korea. You’ve got Iran. Does that help her? Do Great Britain citizens walk around realizing that they ‘ve got this world leader who has the respect of all of the allies?
JB: It helps her a great deal. Nobody’s great surprise, of course, there are already comparisons being drawn between Theresa May’s standing in Downing Street and that of the last and first British prime minister who was a woman, and that’s Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady. And Theresa May has shown herself to be very forthright, very strong, very resolved, and you’re quite right. I think many, many people feel a sense of great unease as they look across the world and see all the uncertainties and the unrest, and the dissention. And the United States, of course, is very close to the top of the lists in all of that, unfortunately. And so Mrs. May, in her first year, with her resolution, her forthrightness, her directness, has won tremendous support. And she’s, at the moment, running in the opinion polls at levels of popularity that haven’t been seen since Mrs. Thatcher.
HH: What about Mr. Corbin and whether or not you can get away from the May-Corbin decision in casting a vote in Great Britain on June 8th?
JB: No, I don’t think you can. I think that Jeremy Corbin, who is a hard left member of the Labour Party, carried the Labour Party back to policies and approaches that we haven’t seen, really, for 50 years, he is the counterpart to Mrs.[May] in more ways than one. Not only is he the alternative prime minister in this election, his opinion poll ratings are absolutely disastrous. There’s somebody sitting right now in New York, David Miliband, who is the potential leader of the Labour Party for the time being in prosperous exile in New York who must be looking at this general election and thinking well, maybe this is my moment, because Corbin, his polls are extremely bad. The Labour Party is deeply divided on almost everything, and not least of which is this Brexit decision. And if the polls are anything to go by, Corbin will lose this general election, lose it heavily, and he will be out.
HH: I have met David Miliband. He is very impressive, and he would return from exile, I would imagine, after a Labour rout. But would, a minute left, would Mrs. May then reshuffle her cabinet as well, would you expect, John Fisher Burns?
JB: Yes, I think she would. I think she was somewhat constrained when she took office last year not having a personal mandate. And she had to accept some of the realities handed over to her by David Cameron. I think she would reshuffle her cabinet, but let’s not get away from the fact that this is a risky decision. That 20% opinion poll lead she has at the moment could, and has often in the past, that sort of lead has shrunk in the course of a general election down to 10% or less, and she could be returned with another narrow majority. I would say unlikely, she’s likely to get a healthy majority, but if she doesn’t win this election big, her own position will be imperiled.
HH: You will be likely getting lots of calls from people all over the world today, John Fisher Burns. I appreciate you taking ours, and I hope you will return early and often through these next critical six weeks. I appreciate it a lot, John Fisher Burns, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, perhaps the world’s greatest foreign correspondent, great to have him on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
End of interview.