Theresa May’s Botched Early Election Leaves Britain With An Uncertain Future
Two months ago, Theresa May looked to be sitting pretty in 10 Downing Street. Her Conservative party was firmly behind her, she enjoyed a strong lead in the polls, and faced seemingly meager opposition from other parties. She hoped to cash in this cushy position for a bigger mandate, calling an early election to further limit opposition heading into Brexit negotiations later this month. It was an understandable, but rather risky, gamble from the normally cautious Mrs. May.
Few would argue that it paid off. After starting off with an almost twenty point lead ahead of the second-place Labour Party, and their far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn, Mrs. May lost her party’s majority outright, in what has been hailed as one of the biggest election upsets in recent history. Instead of gaining seats in Parliament, the Tories lost 12 of them, coming in 8 short of the 326 needed for a majority. Many, including some within Mrs. May’s own party, are calling for her to resign following the result. She has refused, instead opting to form an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party, a regional party in North Ireland, to get the needed majority for a government.
Other parties suffered as well. The Scottish National Party saw the Tories encroach on their monopoly of support there, losing a third of their seats and making a planned second referendum on independence nothing short of a pipe dream. The centrist, anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats gained 4 seats but saw their leader Nick Clegg, a former deputy prime minister, lose his seat. The far-right UK Independence Party lost its only seat in Parliament. The UK is now firmly headed for a de facto two party system.
The election was a clear win for the Labour Party, winners of 29 additional seats, an astonishing bounce back for a party many saw as destined for the fringes. Labour now has the momentum needed to influence the country’s political agenda. What is probably most encouraging for Labour is the number of young people who came out in support. Turnout among voters under 35 rose by 12 percent compared to the last elections in 2015, bucking the tradition of low youth turnouts in much of the Western world. Surveys indicate as much as two thirds of those voters chose Labour.
Mrs. May’s demise stemmed from overconfidence, as well as a campaign that was notable only in its lack of energy and numerous guffaws. It started with the release of the her manifesto, a startling and needles shift rightwards for the party, advocating for heavy limits on immigration, charging migrants more for healthcare, cuts to elderly care, and an end to school lunches. The national outcry following the platform (the manifesto’s writer, Ben Gummer, also lost his seat) necessitated embarrassing U-turns from Mrs. May on several issues.
While Mrs. May was busy shooting herself in the foot, Mr. Corbyn launched his own attacks from her flank. While the Prime Minister wanted to focus the elections on the nature of Brexit, Mr. Corbyn was able to effectively make the election personal, painting her as elitist and out of touch for her support of things like fox hunting. Mrs. May’s refusal to attend a national debate also didn't help. Furthermore, his distinctly socialist agenda — higher taxes on the wealthy, abolition of tuition fees, public ownership of infrastructure, and a topping up of health and social benefits — resonated with many fed-up with the Tories’ austerity measures.
The recent terrorist attacks in the UK also didn't help Mrs. May. Though such tragedies usually tend to lead to more favorable approval of incumbents, she did not enjoy such a boost. Public trust in her ability to keep the country safe actually declined, despite her experience leading national security efforts as Home Secretary.
Officially, the UK elections produced a hung parliament, leaving it without a an outright leader. Mrs. May will hold on to power via the Tory-Democratic Unity Party alliance, but this slim majority and her weakened mandate do not make this sustainable. Another election seems likely, with results far from predictable.
Though Mr. Corbyn is the man of the moment in Britain, he has positioned Labour more as the biggest opposition party, rather than a potential leader of government. It would be near impossible for him to corral the support from other parties needed to overtake the Tories. He will also face difficulties uniting his own party. Entrenched on the far-left of the spectrum, Mr. Corbyn had faced criticism from the more centrist members of his own party. Though they are looking to corral around him now, he is seemingly in no mood to compromise his far-left platform. Mr. Corbyn may thus suffer the same curse of overconfidence as his opponent. Though a majority of the country rejected Mrs. May, it is not at all certain they are ready to hand the reigns to Mr. Corbyn, a man who has previously lauded the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah, Hugo Chavez, and Jill Stein.
This renewed uncertainty in Britain is far from positive, especially since tougher times lie ahead. The country has so far staved off the economic downturn many had predicted after Brexit; according to the Economist, Britain grew faster than any country in the G7 in 2016, and unemployment is at its lowest in decades. But growth last quarter was the slowest in Europe, and the depreciation of the pound has led to inflation and a fall in real wages. The economy may get weaker still if the migration of skilled workers slows.
As to the Brexit negotiations, they look now to have stalled before they have even begun. Negotiations were supposed to officially begin on June 19th, but the EU will most likely not seek to do so given the new political uncertainty. Neither is Britain seemingly ready to negotiate. Mrs. May’s “hard Brexit” stance — a complete removal from the union, curbs on migration, and a renewed trade deal thereafter — has been rejected.
However, the election also produced no consensus on an alternative. Labour’s Brexit stance, apart from being a bit more flexible overall and certainly more conciliatory on migration, is otherwise not too far removed from the Tories’. A rejection of Brexit also does not seem likely given the demise of the Liberal Democrats, who ran a platform catering to Remainers. It seems Brexit’s future — like the political future of Britain — remains yet to be determined.