Sunday

20th Aug 2017

Column / Brexit Briefing

May loses election bet

Theresa May’s faltering acceptance speech at her own constituency count at 3am on Friday morning (9 June) told the story.

“This country needs a period of stability … and if the Conservatives have won the most votes and seats then it is incumbent on us to provide that stability,” she said, but without any conviction.

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There was a certain irony in her repeating the robotic mantra of offering "stability" having just plunged the UK into another unnecessary political crisis.

Despite taking 42 percent of the vote and falling only a handful of seats short of a majority, it is May who is the election’s biggest loser.

Having called the election to strengthen her grip on power, the May and the Tories expected a landslide. 

Even after fighting a poor campaign, the expectation on Thursday morning among Conservatives was of a comfortable majority.

In the minutes before the exit poll was released, Conservative HQ insiders were still confidently predicting that they could take 400 out of the 650 Westminster seats.

For their part, Labour officials could scarcely believe the exit poll that predicted (correctly) a hung parliament, a situation where no party has an absolute majority.

Remainer revenge?

It’s too simplistic to describe Thursday as the revenge of the Remainers and the young.

The Conservatives held their ground in the Midlands and made significant gains in Scotland. Their 42 percent vote share is the party’s largest since Margaret Thatcher was in power.

Yet, while Brexit was not the only issue at stake – Labour’s anti-austerity message clearly struck a chord, particularly with young people – it is striking that the biggest swings against the Conservatives were in London and the university towns that delivered large Remain majorities last June.

Meanwhile, almost all the constituencies visited by May as part of her bid to win over pro-Brexit Labour voters were held by Jeremy Corbyn’s party, with increased majorities.

It is difficult not to conclude that voters have rejected Theresa May’s vision of Brexit and that the Conservatives will have to rethink their negotiating stance.

Seeking single market membership may now be back on the table. So, too, may be a second referendum on the terms of the final deal.

Both Leave and Remain advocates are aware that the saga of Britain leaving the EU has taken another surprise twist.

"Brexit is in some trouble," said the UK Independence Party's (Ukip's) Nigel Farage, whose sabbatical away from domestic politics lasted less than a year.

Ukip collapsed to a mere 2 percent of the vote, as most of its erstwhile supporters backed May, but Farage has promised to return. "I would have absolutely no choice but to do exactly that."

Britain is a “deeply divided and polarised country,” said Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader, who lost his seat to Labour in Sheffield.

However, if the battle over Brexit is now set to begin again, the prospects of Scotland breaking away from the UK any time soon have receded. The Scottish National Party (SNP) topped the poll again, but fell back to 38 percent and lost 21 seats.

So, what happens next?

Coalition of the (un)willing

In the short-term, the only way that May can realistically form a majority is with the support of the ten Democratic Unionist (DUP) MPs in Northern Ireland.

The DUP are understood to be demanding single market membership, and guarantees that there will be no "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as the price for propping up May’s Conservatives.

But a Tory-DUP coalition could not be a formal deal – there is currently a deadlock over devolved government in the province. Nor do the numbers for a "progressive alliance" of Labour, Liberal Democrats, and Scottish and Welsh nationalists quite add up.

So, it seems inevitable that there will have to be another election, probably before the end of 2017.

The implication of May’s speech was that she understands that her tenure as prime minister will not be a long one. She won’t fight another election; she may not survive the week.

Having sought a personal mandate to negotiate Brexit, she has no mandate at all and is almost certainly fatally damaged. It was telling that no senior ministers were prepared to defend May on Friday morning.

For a politician who enjoyed a 20 percent poll lead and seemingly complete control over her government a month ago, this is a staggering turnaround.

The stakes could scarcely have been higher.

Brexit talks are set to start on 19 June, and the UK will enter the negotiating room without a government worthy of the name.

Theresa May’s Brexit gamble could not have backfired more spectacularly.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

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