JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 3, 2017
Six weeks ago, when Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election, it seemed a foregone conclusion this was simply a formality to boost her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in negotiating Brexit from the European Union.
Not any more. The smell in the air now is that May and her Conservative Party will, at best, lose seats in the June 8 election. They might be pushed into a minority and depend for survival on deals with minor parties. There are even pundits and analysts musing that Jeremy Corbyn, the much-derided leader of the main opposition Labour Party, could end up the Prime Minister leading a minority government.
Pollsters are being properly cautious after a series of dramatic misreadings of electorates in recent years – including Britain’s Brexit referendum last June on leaving the EU, and the eruption of Donald Trump in the United States. But, for what they are worth, the polls in Britain are showing that May’s 20-point lead at the start of the campaign has dwindled to almost nothing.
An Ipsos MORI poll published on Friday shows the Conservatives with 45 per cent support, Labour with 40 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats, the perennial bridesmaid of British politics, with only 7 per cent. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose eating away at Conservative Party support over the EU membership issue pushed former Prime Minister David Cameron to gamble and lose on the referendum last June, has disappeared without trace.
With variations of a point or two here and there, all the other polls paint a similar picture – May is set to lose seats and might be forced into minority.
More compelling than the polls, however, in suggesting a Tory comeuppance is the drama of the campaign itself. Or rather, the astonishing lack of drama.
Given the closeness of the referendum result last year, with only 52 voting in favour of leaving the EU and 48 per cent wanting to remain, this election was widely expected to be a rerun of Brexit, especially as May was not herself in favour of quitting the union.
That hasn’t happened. The principal reason is that May herself has shied away from making the central issue of the campaign a demand for the electorate to give her a clear and strong mandate in the two-year dealing with Brussels over the details of the divorce. She has merely made repeated and increasingly hollow calls for support for “strong and stable leadership.”
May’s reluctance to brandish Brexit is because most Brexit supporters, including the most voluble elements in her Tory party, consider the 2016 referendum the final democratic word on the matter. Also, many who voted to remain have come around to at least acquiesce to Brexit, lulled, perhaps, by the failure of the British economy to immediately implode, as banking and commercial interests predicted.
Corbyn and the Labour Party have been equally hesitant to grasp the Brexit nettle. The party opposed leaving the EU, and is uncomfortably aware that over much of the country it was traditional Labour supporters, feeling themselves, like Donald Trump’s Appalachian coal miners, the victims of immigration and free trade, who assured the Brexit victory.
Corbyn, the unreconstructed 1960s socialist, has thus been free to play the role in which he feels most at home. He has been stomping the country and ranting to increasingly large rallies about the iniquities of Conservative austerity policies, and the bounty that a Labour government would heap on Britain’s struggling social services. Corbyn also performed well in the televised TV debate this week. May did herself no good by boycotting the debate and sending her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, as a surrogate.
Corbyn comes across less and less like the unelectable loony lefty of his media caricature. This will dismay centrist members of the Labour Party, especially in the parliamentary caucus. They had hoped that a disastrous election result would allow them to get rid of Corbyn, who was foisted on them through the rabid democracy of an on-line ballot of grass roots party members.
However, there is an undertow in the tide that appears to be flowing in Corbyn’s direction. His growing support is primarily among the young. The Economist magazine has reported that Labour’s support among young voters has risen from an average of 43 per cent when the election was called in April to 57 per cent now. The problem for Corbyn is that younger voters are far less likely to actually go to the polls than are their parents’ generation. And among older, dedicated voters Labour’s support has grown by only four points to 19 per cent.
Theresa May is one of those unfortunate politicians whom voters admire and respect from a distance, but who suffers on close inspection. There was a sense of relief that the country was in safe hands when she became Conservative leader and Prime Minister by default last summer. Cameron resigned government and party leadership after his Brexit defeat, and then the candidates to succeed him managed to knife each other in the back. May was the last person standing.
Until her unexpected announcement in April, she had been dead set against calling an election, even though she had no clear mandate either as Tory party leader or Prime Minister. What caused her to change her mind and call the snap election is still a matter of debate. The most widely accepted explanation is that the double-digit Conservative lead in the polls and the apparent unelectability of Corbyn at the head of a widely divided Labour Party offered a strategic opportunity.
She may believe it would be useful to have the clear backing of the British people heading into brutal negotiations with the EU. Brussels is making it abundantly clear that it intends to make Brexit as painful and expensive as possible. Britain will be the first of the EU’s 28 members to quit, and Brussels wants to show other countries that might be thinking of heading for the exit that it would be a nasty and agonising experience.
However, May and her political advisers appear to have deluded themselves into thinking the snap election campaign would be a walk in the park with victory, probably with an even larger parliamentary majority, as the inevitable outcome. Perhaps for that reason they didn’t put much effort into planning a proper campaign or producing a convincing manifesto.
The platform is long on rhetoric and short on specific proposals. And early on in the campaign one specific plan proved disastrous. A proposed program would have made the elderly pay for care in their own homes if they had assets worth more than the equivalent of $174,000. As Britain has experienced the same relentless surge in real estate prices as elsewhere, this raised the prospect that the average elderly Briton would have to sell their homes to pay for their care. The Labour Party pounced, called the move a “dementia tax,” and the Conservatives swiftly withdrew the proposal.
This incident served to arouse the suspicion that always lurks near the surface among many British voters that the Tories are the “nasty party.” It didn’t help that, on closer inspection, May’s managerial competence came bundled with a personality that appears detached, cold and aloof. Like Margaret Thatcher, with whom she is often compared, May’s public persona lacks warmth. But May also lacks passion, and no one could ever accuse Maggie Thatcher of that.
In politics the plot lines of the individual players is always entertaining, but in this case there is the far more important question of what effect an inconclusive election result will have on the Brexit negotiations. Britain had a weak hand from the start, and all the likely outcomes of Thursday’s election will make it worse.
More than that, events elsewhere are compounding London’s feebleness. Immediately after the vote for Brexit there was much confident bluster that the EU couldn’t afford not to sign a post-exit free trade agreement with Britain. That is now off the table. Brussels and EU leaders have been explicit that talks on a new trade deal can’t start until after Britain has left in two years or so, and that London can’t expect to have as open a relationship with Europe as it has now.
Also, post-Brexit there was cheery waving across the Atlantic and enthusiastic predictions of a revived age of Anglo-American partnership. Well, the swift collapse of the Trump regime into dysfunction and the prospects of prolonged political malaise in the U.S. has cooled that ardour.
There is added pungency to the bad smell about U.S. links in reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has chalked up former UKIP leader Nigel Farage as a “person of interest” in the inquiry into the links between Russia and the Trump campaign. Farage has a strong personal relationship with Trump and both men are outspoken admirers of Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. What seems to have put Farage in the FBI’s frame is his contacts with Wikileaks boss Julian Assange, who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. Wikileaks, it will be remembered, was the vehicle for publishing embarrassing emails from the campaign of Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, emails apparently pilfered by Russian hackers.
At the same time, there has been a significant change in the whole atmosphere around the EU. When Britons went to the referendum polls a year ago its appeared the EU was stumbling towards collapse. The crisis over the common currency, the euro, continued and there seemed no end in sight for the economic turmoil in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Meanwhile, the anti-globalization demagogy – called “populism” – that produced Trump in the U.S. had similar outbreaks in Holland, France, Poland, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe. Those outbreaks have been quelled, at least for the moment, with the defeat of far-right movements in elections in Holland and France. And not only did the French electorate last month defeat Marine Le Pen and her National Front, they produced as President neophyte Emmanuel Macron.
It is early days, but in his first appearances as President, Macron appears vigorous and courageous. This week he publicly called out Putin to his face over Russia’s attempts to manipulate the French elections and its support for chemical weapons attacks on civilians in Syria. Macron has also been up front in his disdain for Trump, and even made televised statements calling on climate scientists and others to come to France, where they will be welcomed, if they find they are unappreciated or sidelined at home in America.
Macron has also planted his flag as a reliable supporter of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in guiding the EU through its problems, and in broader issues like the 2015 Paris accord on combating climate change. For the last few months Merkel has seemed the lonely surviving champion of North Atlantic civic values. No longer.
From seeming to be the Sick Man of the North Atlantic a few months ago, Europe suddenly looks like the future, especially in concert with emerging powers such as China and India.
A few days, leave alone a week, are a long time in politics. So much can happen before British voters go to the polls on Thursday. But at the moment it looks as though the result will be a dispiriting muddle, the very opposite of the bright new dawn the Brexiteers hoped for.
Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017
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Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”
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Jonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
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