Britain plunged into political uncertainty

2017-06-09 14:18
British Prime Minister Theresa May (AFP)

British Prime Minister Theresa May (AFP)

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For the third time in three years, the British electorate have confounded expectations. First it was David Cameron’s surprise outright majority in 2015 then it was the dramatic Brexit vote last year and now it’s Theresa May’s unexpected weakening in elections overnight.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s original intention to strengthen her mandate via a surprise election has now backfired in a political gamble gone horribly wrong. Original predictions of a 100-plus Conservative majority at the start of the campaign have now mutated into a minority government stitched together with the Democratic Unionist Party.

Clearly, the British electorate did not warm to Mrs May. In fact, the more they encountered her on the campaign trail, they more they seemed to dislike her. Conversely, the much-maligned Jeremy Corbyn managed to excel in his role as the underdog street-fighter and steadily made himself more attractive the longer the campaign progressed.

By virtue of her status as incumbent Prime Minister, Mrs May is surely the biggest loser. Although Corbyn’s Labour suffered their third consecutive general election defeat, the momentum is clearly with them. And importantly, it was driven by younger voters who reversed their lack of participation in the Brexit vote by turning out in large numbers disproportionately for Labour.

From an electoral point of view, this was a campaign for Mrs May to lose. And her ‘presidential’ style of politics in which she largely centred everything around her persona and her need for a mandate to negotiate Brexit found little resonance amongst the voters.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn focussed on domestic social spending, health and service delivery issues. His more domestic focus coupled with the humility of a political insurgent was deemed an attractive option when compared to the hubris of Mrs May.

British politics had also been ‘perverted’ over the last few years by the rise of UKIP. Their dismal result overnight saw their voters displaced with the majority returning to the Conservatives but a fair quantity seeing Labour as providing continuity as political outliers.

The return to two-party politics as a result of the demise of UKIP therefore returns the UK to a more traditional Labour vs Tory pattern and this election largely restores that equilibrium. What the Conservatives did not bank on was the inability of the party to absorb a greater quantity of UKIP voters who instead opted to vote Labour.

Now comes the tough part. Theresa May is technically able to govern with the help of the DUP. She therefore has squandered her overall mandate for what could be a more difficult coalition with a Northern Ireland Unionist party who were never in favour of Brexit in the first place. Not to mention the success of the Tories in Scotland where Brexit was soundly rejected.

May now has to juggle a party (and coalition) with increasingly divergent views on Brexit and domestic budgets. The ‘hard Brexit’ that she might’ve wanted (and had requested a mandate for) now will be much tougher to negotiate with the EU – and her own party and coalition partner.

Similarly, her spending cuts on social care now have received major opposition from the re-birth of Labour. She now suffers the worst of all worlds – she will have the technical power to form a new government but may be hamstrung in all that she does. Add to this, her management of these deep fissures across the UK body-politic will be an immense strain.

These factors do not bode well for the longevity of the Theresa May leadership. With the Brexit negotiations about to begin in 10 days and a UK economy that is starting to show strains, May now has an unenviable task. An emboldened Labour will be baying for blood at every opportunity. And, nothing is more brutal than her own party when they become disillusioned over time with their own leader.

The UK electorate have now shown their own confusion and frustration with both Brexit and the social policy malaise. For the Tories, Brexit now will have to be redefined and social spending cuts reviewed. In essence, the electorate have put a break on the ability of the Tories to exert power.

And, in a UK confronting some of the toughest issues in recent years, a weaker government opens the way for volatile politics but at the same time, a time to reflect on issues that will determine the future course of the nation for years to come.

But a coalition comes at a cost to decisive governance. And that will be Mrs May’s extreme test. Should she fail, she may well find that attitudes against her harden rapidly. Another leadership contest – this time amongst the Conservatives – may be in the offing or even another election relatively soon with Labour waiting in the wings.

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website

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