Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election backfired spectacularly, doubling the uncertainty caused by Brexit, writes Raymond Whitaker
First Britain’s 2015 election, then Brexit, then Trump, and now Britain’s 2017 election. Opinion pollsters have managed to get every one wrong. Instead of boosting her slim Conservative overall majority from 12 to more than 100 on June 8, as Theresa May was encouraged to expect, she lost 13 seats, while the Labour opposition gained 30.
Now May is clinging on as Prime Minister, having lost her majority and relying on a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to outvote the rest of the House of Commons. And instead of being consigned to oblivion, with his party facing decades out of power, as his most trenchant enemies predicted, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is a man revitalised. How and why?
First of all, May scarcely put a foot right during the campaign. She called a snap election, having repeatedly said she would not do so. She avoided engagement with the media and ordinary voters, robotically promising ‘strong and stable’ government over the ‘coalition of chaos’ that would result if the others won. But her worst error was to introduce an unpopular measure on care of the elderly in the midst of an election, without consulting senior colleagues, then to withdraw it in haste while denying that anything had changed.
Other flaws were evident in retrospect. Amid visible evidence that the economy was slowing down because of Brexit, May was insisting that only she could negotiate Britain’s departure from the European Union, without disclosing how she proposed to go about it. The only hints she dropped were about raising taxes and squeezing state pensions. The message to disgruntled voters was that the Conservatives were offering nothing beyond five more years of austerity, and they revolted.
Younger voters in particular flocked to Labour, ignoring the attacks on Corbyn as a left-wing hardliner whose radical manifesto, promising more public spending, the abolition of student fees and higher public sector wages, would bankrupt the country. Though Labour had no clearer an idea than the Conservatives how to quit the EU without economic harm, Corbyn’s Zen-like calm and positive message contrasted favourably with the Prime Minister’s brittle manner and unwillingness to debate. Put simply, he seemed to be enjoying the campaign, while she did not.
With turnout just short of 70 per cent, the highest in 20 years, both the Conservatives and Labour increased their share of the vote at the expense of smaller parties. The Scottish National Party (SNP), which two years ago won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, lost 21 of them, apparently consigning the issue of another independence referendum to the sidelines for the foreseeable future. The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), which gained 12 per cent of the vote in 2015, saw its support evaporate to less than 2 per cent. With its aim of Brexit achieved, and May taking an uncompromising approach to the EU negotiations, Ukip voters went back to the Conservatives in most cases.
Many want to reform Britain’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, in which a constituency is won by whoever gains the most votes, no matter how small their share of the overall vote. Its defenders claim that at least it produces a clear result and coherent government, in contrast to what they see as the constant haggling and horse-trading of European proportional representation systems. That argument is beginning to break down in the light of recent results, however: a hung parliament, with no overall majority, in 2010; a narrow majority for David Cameron in 2015, which he squandered by holding the Brexit referendum, forcing him to quit; and now another hung parliament.
The outcome is that Theresa May now has to embark on the most difficult set of negotiations any British government has faced in living memory, disengaging the country from its closest neighbours and main trading partners, with her credibility in tatters. She has to rely on a small party whose attitudes on questions such as abortion and evolution cause much horror in liberal circles, but which wants the border with the Irish Republic to remain open.
The hand of those who do not want a ‘hard Brexit’ – crashing out of the European single market and customs union, possibly without any kind of deal with Brussels – has been strengthened. Even most of the Conservatives newly elected to Parliament are said to have backed Remain in the referendum.
May can console herself that Labour, despite its surge, has only regained its losing position from 2010. Even if Corbyn could have persuaded the SNP and Liberal Democrats to join forces with him, he would have remained well short of a majority. As for the Prime Minister’s would-be successors within her own party, they have little choice but to support her in the short term. A challenge might trigger another election, and no Conservative wants that.
May is nothing if not dogged, and could remain in charge until the Brexit deadline of March 2019. But having gambled and failed, all the consequences, and the fallout from Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, will be on her head.
The House of Commons elected in June is the most diverse in British history, with more women, ethnic minority and disabled MPs than ever before. There were several firsts, including the first Sikh woman, Preet Gill (Labour, Birmingham Edgbaston), the first turban-wearing Sikh, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Labour, Slough) and the first MP of Palestinian origin, Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon).
The number of women MPs rose to a new record of 208 from 191, but that was still short of a third of the 650 seats in the House. Labour is close to the target of equal representation – 45 per cent of its MPs are female, compared to just 21 per cent for the Conservatives (although the latter have now supplied two women prime ministers).
There are now 51 black and ethnic minority (BME) MPs, an increase of 10, although campaigners say there should be twice as many to reflect their proportion of the overall population. Among the total are 29 with South Asian roots, an increase of five – 13 of Indian descent, 12 Pakistani, 3 Bangladeshi and one Sri Lankan. One more MP is of Chinese descent.
– Raymond Whitaker