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British Election Brings Mayhem

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May arrives on Number 10 Downing Street on the morning after Britain’s election in London, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 9, 2017

British voters have shown Prime Minister Theresa May the door.

Her gamble to call an early election in the expectation of strengthening her Conservative majority in parliament – and thus her clout in upcoming negotiations on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union – failed dramatically.

When the final votes were tallied in the dawn hours of Friday morning the Tories were reduced to a minority of 319 seats in the 650-seat house. May said on Friday she will seek to continue in government, probably with the support of the 10 elected members of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, traditional allies of the Tories.

The implications of this drubbing for the Conservative government are profound. For May herself, the writing is on the wall. If she does not choose to quit the party leadership and premiership herself, it is a matter of months at the most before the Tory caucus settles on a slate of candidates to supplant her.

For Britain, the results have much deeper implications. The Westminster government is due to start talks in 10 days time with Brussels on the terms of departure from the EU. Key issues are how much Britain is forced to repay the EU in exit fees, what transitional arrangements will be put in place during the two to three years of the exit process, and what, if any, agreements can be reached on future free-trade arrangements.

The election result has weakened dramatically the bargaining position of the British negotiators. Whether the process can keep to the envisaged two-to-three year exit time table and how painful the extraction is now heavily dependant on the generosity, if any is on offer, of the remaining 27 EU members.

Theresa May called the election saying she needed a “strong and stable” majority in parliament with which to confront Brussels. The reality was that she and her advisers saw the Tories had about a 20 point lead in the polls over the main opposition Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn. He, with his unreconstructed left-wing views and apparent lack of anything approaching charisma, was widely dismissed as “unelectable.”

May, much to the chagrin of many Tories, called an unnecessary snap election, and she has paid the price.

Corbyn proved to be an effective campaigner, especially among young voters. Labour produced a manifesto that spoke to widespread disenchantment among voters at the grinding austerity measures pursued by successive Conservative governments.

There was also a common determination among people who voted in last year’s referendum against leaving the EU. In that vote, 52 per cent voted to leave and 48 per cent remain. Among those remainers is widespread belief and anger that they have been forgotten as the exit process starts. They are upset that Theresa May has opted for a so-called “hard Brexit.” This appears to mean no attempts would be made to forge agreements with Brussels on such things as migration, easy movement of labour and free trade before Britain leaves. In tandem with that is anger that the May government has been secretive about its plans and details of the current talks with Brussels.

If the Conservatives hang on to government, the whole atmosphere around the dealings with Brussels will change. The Labour Party is going to have much more influence on the process, simply because of its added authority in the House of Commons. This is likely to result in much more open debate about the negotiations and negotiating positions as they go along.

The election was clearly a referendum on Theresa May’s leadership, but it was also a reaction to last year’s “Brexit” referendum.

Both the Conservatives and Labour picked up notably larger numbers of votes than they did in the last general election in 2015. But Labour picked up many more than the Tories, and this translated into 26 more seats. A major factor in both parties’ growth in support was the virtual disappearance of the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose highly effective campaigning against the EU spooked former Tory prime minister David Cameron to call the referendum last year.

It had been expected that the Tories would gain most from the disappearance of Ukip. However, in Britain’s rust belt, the ravaged old industrial areas of the Midlands and northern England, many traditional Labour voters opted for Brexit in the referendum, believing that free immigration under the EU had robbed them of their jobs. With Ukip gone, these people returned to the traditional Labour Party loyalty.

Also, many young people who neglected to vote in the referendum and who felt cheated out of their future by the decision to leave the EU, came out to vote this time. They seem to have gone mainly for Labour.

A notable sidebar to the election was the near collapse of the Scottish National Party. It lost 21 seats, with the Conservatives picking up 12, Labour six and the Liberal Democrats three. In the referendum Scotland voted heavily to remain in the EU, and the victory for Brexit led SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to demand another vote on Scottish independence. With this result, the prospects of another independence referendum for Scotland have disappeared, for the moment.

The Conservatives now have a major problem picking likely candidates to succeed Theresa May. Several high-profile ministers lost their seats in Thursday’s election and there are thus four names on the slate at the moment.

There’s the Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who performed well in the campaign, particularly in TV debates. David Davis, the minister responsible for negotiating Brexit, is another. Then there’s the Defence Minister Michael Fallon, who is a smooth performer, but perhaps a bit too smooth. Finally, there is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit, and who could probably have won the leadership in the wake of Cameron’s resignation last year had he stood.

Far from bringing stability and certainty to the British political scene and the Brexit process, this election has produced massive uncertainty. Not least of those questions is who will be Prime Minister in a few weeks or months time.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, and Labour Party candidate Emily Thornberry gesture at a counting centre for Britain’s general election in London, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

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Prime Minister Theresa May made the following statement in Downing Street on Friday after she lost her majority in a national election…

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.” Return to his column page.

 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan 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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