A pyrrhic victory for Theresa May

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Shahid M Amin

British Prime Minister Theresa May must be regretting her decision to hold a snap election on June 8, 2017. Her Conservative Party possessed a majority of 12 seats in parliament, consisting of 650 members, and there were three years still left before the scheduled elections. However, opinion polls showed a 20-point lead for Conservatives over Labour, and May thought she would secure a larger majority in a new election that would strengthen her hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from European Union (EU). In a televised statement, she said: “I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years is to hold this election. Division in parliament will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit.”
But on election day, May could only win a pyrrhic victory. Her party secured 317 seats as against 330 in the outgoing parliament. Labour increased its strength to 262 seats as against 232. Conservatives are still the largest party but are short of 326 votes needed to form a government. In the post-election reactions, May is being heavily criticised by both friends and foes. Almost two-thirds of her party members want May to resign. However, she is determined to hang on and has already been asked by the Queen to form a new government. The likely coalition ally would be DUP (Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland), a religious-minded, pro-EU party. Such an unwieldy coalition would hardly give May the “strong and stable” government she had promised to strengthen her hand in Britain’s exit from EU. Instead, Britain now has a “hung parliament” where May’s own position as Prime Minister seems vulnerable. She would remain in power but would not be able to pass any major laws. It is likely she will become ineffectual and unpopular and would be at a disadvantage in dealing with the EU in the complex negotiations ahead on Brexit.
So what went wrong? Most observers agree that the election result shows a direct repudiation of May’s approach to Brexit negotiations with EU. There are many ways in which the UK can formally leave EU, either retaining some ties or cutting many. May was pushing for a “harder” Brexit, which meant limiting trade and immigration with EU. This seems far less likely now. The stakes are high. The nature of deal the UK makes with EU will shape the lives of millions. Some analysts argue that the future of EU itself is also at stake, including its global role.
May did not run an effective election campaign. Despite their initial lead in polls, the Conservatives saw a sharp decline in closing days of the election. The party manifesto was poorly-designed and offered little hope to the people. It included a proposal to make the elderly pay what was dubbed the “dementia tax”. This was criticised as being heartless and cruel and was hastily withdrawn from the manifesto. Cabinet members were sidelined and learnt about the manifesto shortly before its release. From that point onwards, the polls showed a declining curve for the Conservatives. There was criticism of the choice of campaign managers as also the Presidential style of the campaign, focusing on the figure of Theresa May. She was criticized for refusing to take part in televised debates with her opponents. She chose not to speak to large audiences and was unimpressive in her campaign speeches. The word “robotic” was commonly used in British press to describe her performances.
Labour Party has been the main beneficiary of the election and has 30 more seats in the new House of Commons. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn was able to generate some enthusiasm among the young voters. The youth turnout rose from 43% in 2015 to 72% in the latest election.
Another party that fared poorly was the Scottish National Party (SNP) which lost 21 seats and now has 35. This result would diminish prospects of Scotland’s secession from the UK. The SNP leader decided to resign on June 14. The white supremacist party UKIP secured just 1.8% of the popular vote, down from 12.7% in 2015. It failed to win a single seat in parliament. Its manifesto had sought ban on burqa, outlawing of sharia law and imposing a moratorium on new Islamic schools. Following the election, its leader Paul Nuttall had to resign. The Liberal Democrats did get 4 more seats but with a total of 12 seats, they remain a minor force. Its leader Tim Farron also resigned after the election.
Britain today is a less stable country than before, mainly due to Theresa May. She took an unnecessary gamble that backfired badly. The biggest impact of the election will be on Brexit. The Conservatives have a harsh anti-immigration position, calling for no more than 100,000 people to be admitted to Britain per year. For this to happen, they need to end free flow of people from the EU to Britain. Three million EU citizens currently live in the UK, and 250,000 moved in last year. The EU is unlikely to agree to this while continuing to allow Britain access to EU market. 44% of British exports go to the rest of Europe at this time. Getting cut off from the EU market could badly hurt the British economy. It now seems likely that May would have to accept softer terms for Brexit as the voters have clearly rejected her request for a hard Brexit mandate.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.
Email:shahid_m_amin@hotmail.com