How do you sum up what just happened in the United Kingdom’s parliamentary election? I thought the journalist Hugo Rifkind did it rather well last Saturday on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz, a show that takes a satirical and comical look at the news (worth a listen):
“Prime Minister Theresa May failed to get a mandate to do the thing she wanted to do that was so important she never told us what it was. She’s lost an election she promised not to have and is now in a terribly weak position to start the [Brexit] negotiations in which she hasn’t got anything to say, which she might not be able to have anyway. [Labour Party Leader] Jeremy Corbyn has resoundingly proved wrong all those people who said he couldn’t win an election, although he seems to have done this by not winning an election. May says she won’t resign, which means she probably will, and Labour say they are going to unite under Jeremy Corbyn, which means they probably won’t.”
There is no doubt that the prime minister’s decision to hold an election to secure a strong negotiating hand for her negotiations with the European Union in the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, and dominance over her party that are split between Brexiteers and Remainers, has spectacularly backfired. When she called the election six weeks ago, the question was not whether she could command a majority in the House of Commons but how big a margin above the other parties she would achieve.
However, the UK electorate clearly did not wish to be taken for granted. Though two terrorist attacks occurred in England during the run-up to the election, they did not dominate the proceedings as they might have been expected to have done. The election should have been all about Brexit, but wasn’t. Jeremy Corbyn, as it turned out, was the better campaigner. While often uncomfortable in the formality of Parliament, he was in his natural environment on the campaign trail. He has, in fact, been a campaigner all his life—for nuclear disarmament, the redistribution of wealth, a Palestinian nation, and other contentious issues. It was he who managed to gather the crowds, and they liked what they heard: more police on the streets; the abolition of college fees; and nationalisation of the country’s vital services, such as energy providers and train operators. The botched explanations for how much these proposals would cost and who would pay for them did not dissuade a reenergised youth vote from backing him. In Canterbury, which had been conservative for 100 years, 8,000 new voters registered from the city’s rapidly expanding student population and toppled the incumbent Conservative member of Parliament in one of the biggest shocks of the night.
Theresa May, on the other hand, came across as cautious and distant in her carefully choreographed visits to Conservative-friendly businesses and robotic repetition of the fact that only she could deliver “strong and stable” leadership. Perhaps the biggest single act of political self-harm was refusing to take part in a television debate with all the other party leaders. It smacked of cowardice and did not go down well with the British people who form their views of whom they think would be a better leader from exactly that kind of televisual contest. There is no doubt that in the battle of the personalities in this election, Corbyn bested May.
The Conservative Party had the largest number of members of parliament elected, 318 to Labour’s 262, but this did not quite reach the 50 percent of the 650 seats in the House of Commons needed to ensure that their proposed legislation would pass. To do this, they would need the support of another minority party. Given the anti-Brexit stance of the Liberal Democrats, who were annihilated after the last coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, this was not an option. The Scottish National Party lost a large number of seats to the Conservatives in a clear message that the Scots are sick of referendums and wish to remain in the Union. This left only the 12 members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This is a right-wing party with strong traditional protestant support in Northern Ireland based on the preservation of Ulster as part of the United Kingdom at all costs. Again, Theresa May seemed to take it for granted that a deal would be done with them, and she even issued a statement on Saturday saying that this had happened only for the DUP to deny this and say that talks were still progressing. This small party will likely want to maximise this opportunity for their own ends, which are staunchly anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage.
So what happens now? The immediate conclusion by all the political pundits was that a “soft Brexit,” rather than a “hard Brexit,” was now more likely. However, that outcome is not at all clear or certain. The reason the Conservative Party managed to cling on to the largest number of seats in the House of Commons was because the single-issue (Brexit) UK Independence Party vote collapsed and returned to the Conservatives.
Theresa May is still Prime Minister, the Conservatives did “win” the election, and May has the permission of the Queen to form a government, whether that will be a minority government or a coalition government. The usual post-election reshuffle of the cabinet took place yesterday and was notable in its timid lack of shuffling, with the only notable change being the reappearance of arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove, now notorious for his Shakespearean treachery in ruining Boris Johnson’s chances of becoming prime minister while he was his campaign manager.
Talks with the EU on Brexit begin in one week. Prime Minister Theresa May says that it is “business as usual.” The one thing almost everyone else seems to agree on is that it most certainly is not. The former number two in the British government, ex-chancellor George Osborne, now the editor of London’s Evening Standard, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, put it bluntly: “Theresa May is a dead woman walking.” The only question, he said, is “how long she is going to remain on death row.”