Theresa called the election despite the Fixed Term Parliament Act, despite repeatedly saying that she wouldn’t do it, despite the fact she already had a majority. She insisted she wanted a mandate to pursue a hard Brexit, which hadn’t been part of the Conservative manifesto at the previous election, when she hadn’t been the leader and Prime Minister presumptive.
Now she has lost her majority, despite having started the campaign 20% ahead in the polls and seen the UKIP vote collapsing and the other parties making no impression. Now the newspapers are calling the election a gamble. It was no gamble, it was a certain win, and she managed to mess it up. This ranks alongside George Seawright being expelled from Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, DUP for being too bigoted, and considered as the greatest political achievement in living memory.
The Labour Party was gaining in the opinion polls right up until polling day. It did a lot better than most expected, but still came nowhere near either winning the election or having enough allies elsewhere to put a coalition of its own together. So the Tories are still there by default, apparently impossible to displace no matter how much the Labour Party thrives, the last thing Labour actually wanted. No matter how popular it is it can’t win, just as the Tories said, and even in defeat the Tories are still proved right.
The Liberal Democrats entered the election with high hopes, assuming it would be about Brexit, as that is the only thing people were talking about when the election was called. As the most anti-Brexit of the big parties they would indeed have benefited greatly from such an election. Instead the public lost interest in Brexit and started talking about other issues where the LibDems made no impression. They won a few more seats, but not many, after putting in their worst performance in 45 years last time round.
The Scottish National Party won the election in Scotland again. But it lost over 20 seats, to all three of the other parties, and even suffered massive swings to the Conservatives. Any mandate it might have had to hold another independence referendum evaporated with the 20 seats, and it can’t wield any influence on the new UK government, whatever its complexion. The old “tartan trance” the SNP was long accused of offering the voters has become the reality it lives in until next time.
The rest of the EU must be laughing their heads off. Whoever represents the UK in the coming Brexit negotiations will have no authority to demand anything. Theresa hasn’t got a mandate to even ask for what she wants, and neither has anyone else. She won’t be able to hang on for long, and any new leader will be in a worse position than she was in, neither elected by the public as Prime Minister nor having a majority to back them. Nor will the public accept such a leader, just at the time when leadership is essential.
Everything Theresa wanted she has failed to get. Everything the British public wanted, whoever they voted for, they failed to get. You couldn’t have inflicted a worse outcome if you’d tried. If the UK was a company it would be taken over tomorrow, but it doesn’t even know who it can turn to to get it out of this mess.
Cometh the hour, goeth the woman
The only winner of this election was the author Simon Sebag Montefiore. In his biography of the Romanovs he argued that only a certain sort of person can make autocracy work. He probably didn’t expect that Theresa May, a democratic leader who regards herself as a liberal, would demonstrate the truth of that statement.
The signature policy of the David Cameron and Theresa May governments has been austerity. Most Conservative voters don’t actually want to see public spending cuts, job losses, street homelessness and people eating out of food banks. But they have been told that austerity measures are needed to get the public finances under control, and therefore necessary evils.
As everyone has to budget their income, and UK voters were exposed to the credit crunch and the debt crisis which followed it, this argument always strikes a chord. The fact that these policies have patently not worked, as the deficit has tripled and the Cameron and May governments have borrowed more than any other government in history to stay afloat, has been ignored because the idea behind them sounds logical. But as Montefiore pointed out, you need a special kind of person to keep convincing the public that things they don’t want are necessary.
Theresa has always rejoiced in being described as a “bloody difficult woman” because it makes her appear to be single minded and determined to get her own way. This idea too was widely accepted. Then the British public saw her in action, and gained exactly the opposite impression.
First she refused to take part in leaders’ debates on TV, which was interpreted as a sign of weakness. Then she said the same few meaningless phrases over and over again, making her appear clueless. Then she changed her policy on social care costs for the elderly, the so-called “dementia tax”, but kept insisting she hadn’t.
Then she presented the Conservative manifesto, and there were no costs in it. Then there were the alleged terrorist attacks in Manchester in London, which should have led people running to the government to protect them, but ended up making them question why May had cut 20,000 police officers when she was Home Secretary if she was the person to keep them safe.
When such a bumbling incompetent tells the public that they have to put up with austerity because she knows best, no one is inclined to listen. Jeremy Corbyn told them that they didn’t have to put up with all the cuts, and came out with a costed spending programme. He didn’t convince enough people to win the election, but attracted enough of the marginalised and forgotten that he picked up a greater proportion of the former UKIP vote than anyone expected. He also enthused a lot of young people, and the significantly higher turnout suggests that they went out to vote this time, and predominantly for him.
With someone like May in charge, the Conservatives can’t get away with failed policies just because they sound sensible. No one understood this before this campaign. But now the door is open, and everyone who wants to go against current orthodoxy, such as those who still want to stop Brexit, know that people won’t automatically accept what they accepted yesterday, and revisit all kinds of areas where the government of the day and its track record may prove vulnerable.
All their fault
There is a way in which Brexit was indeed the subject of the election. The Conservatives did better in areas which voted Leave in the Brexit referendum and Labour in areas which voted Remain. However the scale of the swings in these seats indicate that the swings to the Conservatives were accounted for by UKIP voters switching and the swings to Labour came from both young voters and Remain voters who decided to stop the Tories as a way of stopping a hard Brexit.
This is consistent with the pre-election polls, which otherwise varied wildly. Most UK voters now think Brexit is a bad idea, but have decided to put it up with it rather than go through another referendum. As the Liberal Democrats found to their cost, a new referendum is not an attractive offer, but voting against the party which caused the problem provided a way out for all concerned, even though Labour has vowed to implement Brexit in a softer form.
Furthermore, the one crumb of comfort Theresa can take from this election is that it may induce hubris in the EU negotiators. The UK’s Brexit negotiators will start from a very weak position because it was Theresa who said she wanted to give them a mandate and she hasn’t got one. However if the EU behaves as the unfeeling bully it has often been portrayed as in the UK the British public might start feeling sorry for the poor victims of EU super-state dictatorship. This might give Theresa the mandate she wanted by the back door, and persuade the country to back her attempts to dictate her own terms on behalf of the British people.
The EU is talking about delaying the Brexit negotiations. Anything which is eventually agreed between the EU and UK will then have to be agreed by the British parliament. It will be very difficult for the new government to discuss anything with the EU when it fears it may not be able to get any agreement through parliament. As there is very unlikely to be any coalition in the UK, after the Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out for entering into one in 2010, the new government will only be supported on an issue by issue basis, and all kinds of external factors will determine whether that support is provided at any given time, which will weaken the UK’s position even further.
The Remainers may accept the result of the referendum but will now feel they can have their cake and eat it. Whilst continuing with the Brexit process they will feel they can twist that process to suit themselves and perhaps even stop it if they don’t get their own way. All we can bank on is that there will be ongoing uncertainty on the UK side, which will undercut, or even remove, any negotiating position it chooses to adopt.
Next steps backwards
As the sitting Prime Minister, Theresa has the responsibility to try and form a government. Only if she cannot do so can she advise The Queen to ask someone else to try. On the morning after the vote she refused to resign, meaning that she will either try and carry on with a minority government, in defiance of the electorate, or reach an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party, the leading Northern Ireland party which is the natural ally of the Conservatives, and grew out of the historic Unionist Party which was effectively the local Conservatives.
The DUP is also pro-Brexit, but has a very different set of concerns. On the one hand, it is determined to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom, but on the other it represents people who cross the UK/Republic of Ireland border daily. It will therefore demand a softer Brexit than Theresa has been proposing, but at the same time far greater focus on Northern Ireland than the government wishes to give, as every UK government has been desperate to get rid of “The Irish Problem” since Northern Ireland was created in 1921.
In Northern Ireland there is very little middle ground. Members of the Protestant tradition generally want to stay in the UK, those of the Catholic tradition want to be united with the Irish Republic. These positions have never changed, and therefore Northern Ireland has always been a special case which requires a lot of work and understanding, even at times of peace between these two communities. British governments generally don’t have the time to make the effort, and have increasingly had little inclination, particularly when the complexities of Northern Irish politics make no sense to people on the mainland.
Even if she wants to, Theresa is unlikely to be able to satisfy the concerns of the Democratic Unionists because she will never be able to devote the time to understand them. Even if the DUP wants to prop up Theresa, it won’t happen for long because she will make a mistake which upsets them out of ignorance.
In 1976 James Callaghan’s minority government begged the Ulster Unionists for support by offering to create extra Northern Ireland seats in the Westminster parliament. The Unionists rejected this offer, even though they had been advocating the same thing for years, because if they had accepted it their supporters would think some secret deal had been done which might sell them out. Callaghan was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. After her performance in this unnecessary election, no one on her own side will be confident that Theresa May will be able to work with the DUP or anyone else.
White flags are cheaper
The United Kingdom shot itself in the foot by voting for Brexit. That referendum wasn’t necessary or legally binding, but Cameron held it anyway. Wherever the UK goes if Brexit is implemented it is not going to be seen as a reliable partner after the steps it has taken, so if it recovers economically and politically it will take as long as it usually takes a country which has been split by civil war – such as the Republic of Ireland, where it took 50 years.
Now the UK has made its situation immeasurably worse. It has no idea what to do next, and no way of implementing anything it now decides to do. Once again, this is the result of entirely unnecessary decisions which have made one of history’s great powers an international laughing stock. This is what the Conservatives said Jeremy Corbyn’s policies would do. Maybe they are right, but the public seems to think the boot is on the other foot, big time.
The EU is synonymous in the UK public’s mind with a dictatorial, over-mighty mess which has little connection with the people who live in it. Now the UK’s Conservative government, which gained votes by presenting itself as the antidote to this, has become even more of the same. All governments have their critics, but no one can remember another UK government which created the worst of all possible worlds entirely on its own.
What’s the effect on the rest of the world? They can do whatever they like, with the UK, without the UK and to the UK, and the UK can’t do a damn thing about it. Even Poland in the days of the elective monarchy wasn’t this pathetic, and that was partitioned out of existence. If that isn’t what happens to the UK now, it is only because the rest of the world is too busy laughing at it to be bothered about it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.