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Globe editorial: An election about speeding up Brexit, or derailing it

The Brexit slow train – likely destination, the end of both Great Britain and the European Union – made a stop at Number 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, where British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election. Unless at least a third of the House of Commons votes against her on Wednesday, the election will be held on June 8, three years ahead of schedule. The vote will decide whether the Brexit train speeds up or gets taken out of service, and who will be driving the locomotive.

Ms. May is facing dissension within her own Conservative ranks, but it's nothing compared to the state of absolute chaos among the opposition Labour Party. Polls say the pro-Brexit Conservatives hold a massive lead and are on the verge of winning a historic landslide. An early election looks like a sure thing, not a gamble.

So sure that, only hours after surprising everyone with an election call, Ms. May added a further shock by saying she would not be taking part in any national television debates. It's the tell of a candidate who believes the electorate's mind is already made up in her favour, so the less she does to change their opinions, the better. The election is supposed to be over before it even begins.

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Explainer: Britain's snap election: What's next, and who stands to gain what

In politics, however, the best laid plans don't always pan out. Remember David Cameron? After capturing a surprise majority in 2015, the former Tory PM tried to quell dissent within his own party by a calling a referendum on leaving the European Union. He opposed Brexit; his plan was for voters to reject the idea, thereby unifying Conservatives and burying the issue for a generation. Mission ccomplished, Mr. Cameron would then humbly accept the thanks of a grateful nation.

The polls said Brexit would lose, and he'd win. Instead, Brexit narrowly passed. Mr. Cameron, his entire agenda sunk and sent to the ship-breaking yard, resigned.

At the moment, Ms. May's move looks brilliant. The opposition parties back her election call. Even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says he supports an election, despite his catastrophic unpopularity and the protestations of Labour MPs whose seats are in jeopardy.

Barring a surprise on Wednesday, Britain is going to the polls. Barring even bigger surprises over the next two months, Ms. May and the Conservatives will be returned with a larger majority and a freer hand for the next five years.

The question is, what Ms. May will do with it? Where does she want to take Britain? And will it be Great Britain or Little Britain?

Ms. May was one of many Conservatives who backed the Remain camp. After the referendum, she followed the bulk of her party's voters and switched sides. And, until Tuesday, her response to questions about the possibility of her majority government calling an early, unnecessary election had been adamantine: No, not, never.

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Margaret Thatcher once famous quipped that "the lady's not for turning," but the current PM has made rather a lot of U-turns over the past year. She had long been seen, even by opponents, as a person of principle before politics. Not so much anymore.

Going in this election, Ms. May is faced with at least three giant problems. First, her and her party's overconfidence. They need this election to be over as soon as possible, because a party polling 20 points ahead of its rivals has nowhere to go but down.

Second, she's trying to negotiate Brexit against a Europe that is taking a hard line. Britain wants to leave the EU but negotiate its way back into free trade and other ties with the bloc; Brussels' position is get out already, and then we'll talk. Five years of majority government seems like a long time, but it won't be enough to bargain both of Britain's feet out of the EU, and then bargain one foot and a few toes back in.

And third, just as Brexit revealed a deep well of anti-EU English nationalism, so has it invigorated the United Kingdom's other, anti-union nationalists. If the UK leaves the EU, other nations will try to leave the UK.

Unless Brexit is soft and largely symbolic – the EU isn't offering that, and Ms. May says she's not asking for it – another Scottish independence referendum is almost certainly in the offing. That's because Scotland is resolutely pro-EU. Trouble is also brewing in Northern Ireland; Brexit threatens to poison the delicate ecosystem created by the borderless relationship with EU-member Ireland.

So what is this election about? Setting the above series of unfortunate events in motion, apparently. On Tuesday, Ms. May said she had no choice but to call a snap election in order to prevent the opposition from blocking Brexit. She spoke of Brexit and little else, as if trying to turn the vote into a second referendum.

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Her bet is that Britain wants Brexit more than ever, and a party other than the Conservatives less than ever. Maybe. But surprise is the great constant in politics.

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