In the wake of the shock result in the British election, Peter Young looks at what lies ahead for the troubled Prime Minister Theresa May after seeing her majority slashed.
By PETER YOUNG
LAST week’s General Election in Britain produced a drama which was unprecedented in modern political times. This was a contest that sitting Prime Minister Theresa May was widely expected to win with an increased majority. She wanted this in order to strengthen her hand in obtaining a good deal for the United Kingdom in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations in Brussels about the terms of the nation’s departure from the European Union. But it all went wrong for her in a shocking result of seismic proportions.
In the highest turnout for 20 years, the Conservatives won the most votes, 42 per cent of the total, and the most seats – 318 against the opposition Labour Party’s 262. But this was short of the 326 seats required for an overall majority which has resulted in a hung parliament, with the smaller Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and others making up the difference in a 650-seat House of Commons. One of those others is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland.
With its ten seats, the DUP will prop up the Tories in an arrangement called “confidence and supply” which means support of major legislation, including issues like the Queen’s Speech setting out the new government’s programme, and in relation to budgetary matters. This will give them a working majority in Parliament but falls short of the sort of coalition government which the Tories formed with the Liberal Democrats when the 2010 election likewise produced a hung parliament.
Mrs May called a snap election in mid-April when her party was 20 points ahead of Labour in the polls. With a working majority of only 17, she felt that, as an unelected Prime Minister – having been chosen as leader by her party colleagues after David Cameron’s resignation on losing last year’s EU referendum – she needed her own mandate from the electorate.
The indications at the time were that she would win in a landslide or at least with a comfortable majority, not least because the Labour Party had been taken over by the hard Left and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was widely considered to be unelectable. However, this turned out to be a catastrophic misjudgment and a gamble which failed spectacularly; and those Tories who lost their seats will be understandably bitter given that there was no need to go to the country until 2020.
In the event, despite winning more seats than Labour, the Prime Minister’s loss of her absolute majority has substantially diminished her authority so that, as a politically damaged figure, her position could have been fatally weakened. Nonetheless, as the largest party in the House of Commons, the Conservatives have the constitutional right to form a government and Mrs May has already appointed a new Cabinet after securing the DUP’s support. So, less than a week after the election, it seems almost to be back to business as usual though it remains to be seen what price the DUP will demand for its continued backing and how long this new government can last.
Snap elections in Britain can backfire for different reasons – for example, in 1974 the then Prime Minister Edward Heath called an election in face of a miners’ strike which ended up in a hung parliament and his resignation. In this latest case, there have been reports that the electorate might have considered Mrs. May’s move to call an election -- after having earlier stated categorically that she had no intention of doing so – as complacent and overconfident opportunism in face of a demonstrably weakened opposition. But her failure has been attributed to a fundamentally flawed manifesto, whose content on social care and taxes was enough to terrify old people and on which, too late, the Tories had to back track, as well as a poor and lacklustre campaign now labelled perhaps the worst in recent Tory history.
Whereas the Conservatives came across as arrogant, self-satisfied and self-serving, with the Prime Minister herself accused of being wooden and unimaginative on the campaign trail, the evidence suggests that Mr. Corbyn inspired young people, in particular, by offering – in the name of the poor in society – a realistic socialist alternative to the Conservative government’s austerity measures (including a recent substantial cut in police numbers) which have been seen by many as unnecessary.
His popular anti-establishment stance – comparable, perhaps, to Bernie Sanders’ prospectus in last year’s US election – resonated with many people and he tempted them with commitments to higher public spending and abolition of tuition fees. In addition, his folksy, down-to-earth approach makes him an authentic political figure who can relate to the man-in-the-street, and he managed to galvanize the young to vote in droves to stop what was seen as the Tory juggernaut.
Despite Labour’s euphoria in exceeding pre-election expectations, they still lost the election and trail the Tories, who polled nearly 14 million votes (3 million higher than in 2015), by 56 seats. Already, people are recalling that Mr. Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats survived for a full 5-year term, but this time around the Lib Dems are unwilling to support the new Conservative government. Historians also point to the minority Labour government from 1974-79 so there is ample precedent for the Tories to hang on to power and govern effectively.
Most importantly, the nation needs a swift return to stability, not only because political uncertainty affects business confidence but also to enable Mrs. May to pursue the vital Brexit negotiations, which are due to begin on June 19, with certainty and strength. Above all, she will need to adopt a more collegiate style and consult her parliamentary colleagues more readily and more extensively. If not, despite DUP support, her position may become untenable in the longer term.
These are early days, but the Prime Minister has shown remarkable composure and resilience in the face of a massive political setback. She seems to have steadied the ship for the moment and has, reportedly, told her parliamentary backbench colleagues that she had “got us into this mess and would now get us out of it”. But, even though there appears to be no appetite at the moment for another Tory leadership election, the knives will still be out for her within her own party which has a reputation for treating its failed leaders in brutal fashion.
Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, whom she sacked last year, has already displayed schadenfreude – or what in this case might be more accurately termed vindictive triumph – in calling her “a dead woman walking”. But the most infamous recent example of Tory ruthlessness was the treatment of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who won three elections but was ousted by her own parliamentary colleagues in 1990.
The coming weeks and months will be crucial. If the new Conservative government finds itself unable to govern even with the DUP’s support, there could be another General Election before the end of the year.
Peter Young is a retired British diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 2000 he was British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.