Theresa May’s gamble backfires

Theresa May did not get a mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’. Photo: Reuters

Theresa May did not get a mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’. Photo: Reuters

British Prime Minister Theresa took a gamble by calling a snap early election – and lost. Over-confident as a result of the polls which showed her Conservative Party leading Labour by 20 points, she believed she would easily win the election by a majo­rity of up to 80 seats and thus have a stronger mandate to negotiate the terms of Brexit.

Instead, May lost 13 seats and her overall majority in Parliament. Although the Conservatives remained the largest parliamentary bloc the Prime Minister ended up with a minority government which now has to depend on the 10 seats of the Democratic Unionist Party (of Northern Ireland) in order to govern.

Both the Conservative and Labour gained votes, largely because Ukip, whose raison d’être is simply to take Britain out of the EU (which has now been settled by the referendum) saw its share of the vote decimated and transferred to the two main parties.

The results of the popular vote are as follows: Conservatives, 42.4 per cent (36.9 per cent in 2015); Labour, 40 per cent (30.4 per cent); Liberal Democrats, 7.4 per cent (7.9 per cent); Ukip, 1.8 per cent (12.6 per cent); Scottish Nationalists, 3.0 per cent (4.7).

In terms of seats, the Conservatives got 318, a decrease from 331; Labour got 262, an increase from 232; the Liberal Democrats got 12, an increase from eight, the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) got 35, a decrease from 56; and Ukip got none.

The results were quite mixed as in Scotland, for example, the SNP lost 21 seats, the Conservatives gained 12 (the only really good news for the Tories in this election), Labour gained six and the Liberal Democrats gained three. In England, however, a number of Conservative seats were lost to Labour, including, incredibly, the ‘safe’ Tory seat of Kensington and Chelsea, which was won by 20 votes.

Now perhaps is the time for the British government to re-evaluate its Brexit strategy

In another development, the traditionally moderate Unionist and Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party respectively, lost all their seats. With the exception of one independent MP, the province has now only elected MPs from the more hardline parties, namely 10 from the Democratic Unionist Party (which are supporting the Conservative minority government) and seven from Sinn Fein.

The results have changed the face of British politics, strengthened the two-party system, made the left-wing Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn actually look like it is electable, undermined the ‘hard Brexit’ that May wants to pursue, made the pros­pect of another Scottish referendum unlikely and led to a the crea­tion of a weak Conservative minority government that could collapse at any moment.

The fact that May has to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party in order to govern – when the British government has to play the role of the honest broker in Northern Ireland – might also cause problems. Also, no formal agreement has yet been signed between the Conservatives and the DUP, so it will be interesting to see just what this Northern Irish Unionist party will be demanding in return for its support.

There will have to be some soul searching within the Conservative Party as to why it lost its overall majority despite the fact that at the start of the campaign it was so far ahead of Labour. The party will also have to decide whether it wants to keep May at the helm of the party, although I’m not sure whether another leadership contest at this point in time is a good idea.

It is quite clear, however, that May did not have a good campaign, she was not an inspiring figure at all, she replied like a robot when asked questions on the campaign trail and her party’s manifesto was roundly criticised for not taking into account people’s concerns. The proposed ‘dementia tax’, which caused so much uproar, is a case in point and certainly lost the party a number of votes.

Ironically, the person who did best out of this election is Corbyn. He was widely dismissed by the media, pollsters and members of his own party for being too left-wing. However, he managed to get 40 per cent of the vote, only 2.4 percentage points behind the Conservatives, and was particularly successful in appealing to young voters.

Although there are some very valid concerns about Corbyn’s left-wing economic and foreign policies, he did have a positive message of hope and change and he spoke a language that people could actually identify with.

What does this election mean for Brexit? The electorate clearly did not give May her mandate for a hard Brexit, which would have meant giving up access to the single market and the customs union.

Now perhaps is the time for the British government to re-evaluate its Brexit strategy, in consultation with the other political parties, and consider remaining in the single market, which would be greatly welcomed by businesses and would mean that the UK will remain fairly integrated into the EU, just like Norway.

Of course, remaining in the single market means accepting the four freedoms, namely the free movement of goods, capital, servi­ces, and yes, people, which have contributed to so much economic growth in the UK.

It is true that the ‘Leave’ camp in Britain won the EU referendum last year mainly due to concerns over immigration, but it is also true that there was a tremendous amount of misinformation and inventions coming out of the anti-EU side.

Voting for Brexit was a leap in the dark, and remaining in the single market is one way of softening the blow of leaving the EU. It will also make it much easier for the UK to slip back into the bloc should people decide that Britain’s rightful place is indeed in Europe, and the idea of Britain being a global power outside the EU is just a fantasy.

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