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Mainstream, VOL LV No 26 New Delhi June 17, 2017

Hung Parliament in the UK: Theresa May Scores Self-goal

Saturday 17 June 2017

by Purusottam Bhattacharya

The opinion pollstars have got it wrong again—the Brexit referendum of June last year, Donald Trump’s triumph in the US elections last November and the just concluded general elections in the UK, three in a row in the last one year. British Prime Minister Theresa May had called snap general elections last April (the next elections were due only in 2020) on the strength of opinion polls which gave her a 20-point lead over the Labour Party ostensibly to strengthen her hands in the crucial Brexit negotiations that are due to start on June 19. The Conservatives had an overall majority of five with 331 MPs in the 650-member House of Commons. If the April opinion polls were translated into parliamentary seats, May would have secured an estimated 50-70 additional MPs which would have put her in a commanding position both in Parliament and the country. May was also being rated much higher up in public esteem in comparison to the then much derided Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

All this was squandered by May during the course of only six weeks since the elections were declared. Not only did the general elections, held on June 8, produce a hung Parliament, it left May and the Conservative Party in a much weakened position than before, something they had not bargained for. The final tally is—the Conservatives 318, Labour 261, the Scottish Nationalist Party 35, Liberal Democrats 12, Democratic Unionist Party 10, others 13. May failed to cross the magic number of 326 in a House of 650 and yet decided to hang on with support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, a sectarian anti-Gay, anti-Abortion party which is also a climate change denier. One can easily imagine, even without being an expert in electoral politics, what kind of government it is going to be. May will have to constantly look over her shoulders when she introduces crucial legislations in the House of Commons whether it be the Queen’s Speech, a mandate for the Brexit negotiations, the Budget or any other piece of legislation for which the government will be dependent on its own majority.

A furious debate is already raging in the political circles in the UK on how long Theresa May can actually survive as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. Alternative names of Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary and a hard Brexiteer, and the Brexit Minister, David Davis, are doing the rounds; so is the talk of another election this year itself, possibly before the end of the year. If that happens it will not be without a precedent—1974 witnessed two elections in Britain: one in February (which did not produce a clear winner) and then another in October (when the Labour Party gained an absolute overall majority under Harold Wilson).

Another very significant feature of these elections is the rejuvenation of the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a much derided figure in British politics in recent times because of his hard Left image and certain allegedly controversial policies, especially in regard to Britain’s nuclear status. Labour has secured 261 seats, a gain of 29 seats over its 2015 performance and bettering its 2010 performance of 258. Although it is still far away from the magic number of 326, Corbyn and the Labour supporters are claiming a victory of sorts in the given situation when both he and the Labour Party had been written off. John Macdonnel, Labour’s shadow Chancellor of Exchequer, even went so far as to claim that since the electorate had effectively rejected Theresa May and the Conservative Party, the only credible alternative is a minority Labour Government with policies already enunciated in the Labour election manifesto, much of which—such as abolition of tuition fees of university students—had been endorsed by the electorate, especially by the young people. (Indeed the enthusiastic participation of the youth in Britain in these elections—66 per cent against 43 per cent in 2015—is an important hallmark of these elections.) Leaving aside the practicality of such a scenario, events have overtaken it from even being seriously considered.

In spite of the severe drubbing she received from the electorate, Theresa May moved swiftly and secured the support of the DUP to form the new government. However, it still does not negate the possibility of the return of a Labour Government in the next general elections— whenever it is held—if May and the new Conservative Government make a hash of governance with no mandate at all, especially in the crucial Brexit negotiations, as many British political commentators expect them to do.

The Scottish Nationalists have also received a setback in these elections. In the 2015 elections the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) had achieved a clean sweep in Scotland which had always been a traditional preserve of the Labour Party. In those elections the SNP had won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats. This time, however, their numbers are down to 35, the remaining 24 having been won by Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, all mainstream British parties. (See my article in Mainstream, May 15-21, 2015 for a more detailed analysis on this issue) This electoral setback is likely to have a repercussion for the SNP plan to call a second independence referendum later in 2018 or early in 2019 following the Brexit referendum verdict when Scotland voted 62 against 38 in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union.

The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, forcefully argued then that it was unfair for Scotland to be dragged out of the EU with the rest of the country in spite of Scotland having voted to remain in the EU and she advocated that the issue can be cleared through a second referendum verdict though Theresa May stoutly opposed such a move. The adverse verdict of June 2017, which was described by Sturgeon herself as a disappointment, will dash the SNP dream of a second referendum, according to analysts. The SNP lost these 21 seats to parties that want to keep the UK intact though I would argue that this electoral verdict in Scotland is not necessarily a reflection of the Scottish people on the issue of another independence referendum though mainstream British media has been quick to draw such a conclusion.

Finally what is the likely impact of the verdict on the Brexit negotiations? As already noted, May had called the snap poll in an effort to strengthen her hands in these negotiations. The Brexit referendum verdict had divided the country in an almost unprecedented manner in recent British history. The bitter divisions on Europe have wracked both the Conservative and Labour Parties for years. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, had called the Brexit referendum to heal such divisions within his party in the first place though there were other compulsions. May had hoped that a stronger position in Parliament would put her in an advantage not only within her party, Parliament and the country but also vis-a-vis the European Union negotiators. The issues that need to be sorted out in these negotiations are extremely complex into which we need not go here. But the two points to be noted are that May has been severely weakened in this regard as her authority has been gravely undermined in her own party, let alone Parliament and the country. Secondly in order to appease the hard Brexiteers in her party May, originally a supporter of the ‘Remain’ camp, had been pushing for a hard Brexit (quitting the EU single market and customs union and negotiating a free trade deal with the EU and clamping down on free movement of people from the EU into the UK) for almost a year.

However, the electoral verdict is being interpreted as the revenge of those who voted in the referendum last year in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. This was also an opportunity for a large number of young people, who did not vote last year in the referendum but probably would have favoured the ‘Remainers’, to make a point of their own; these people have now voted in these elections and for the Labour Party which stands for a soft Brexit (remaining in the single market and a more flexible position on free movement of people from the EU to the UK). On the issue of Europe younger people, who are generally more optimistic about the future and more forward-looking on the whole, favour remaining in the EU while most older people favour quitting the EU. May will need to change her negotiating tactics in the light of the constraints she has been put under following these developments as reflected in the electoral verdict.

So what is the way ahead? There is no doubt that Britain finds itself in a very messy situation following the June 8 elections the ramifications of which have been discussed in detail in this short comment. The present scenario has grave implications for British politics, political personalities, the British economy as well as Britain’s relations with an apparently united Europe ready to confront London and the rest of the world which is increasingly weary of the whole issue of Brexit. The only suitable word that can sum up the present scenario is—uncertainty; uncertainty at home as well as abroad so far as the British polity is concerned. The UK and Europe-watchers will just have to wait and watch.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a former Professor, the Head, Department of International Relations, and the erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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