UK election surprise leaves Brexit talks uncertain

By on 09/06/2017

UK prime minister Theresa May suffered a huge electoral blow last night, losing her parliamentary majority in a general election held just days before the beginning of formal Brexit talks with the EU.

May herself called the election in April, when polls suggested that her Conservative Party was 20 percentage points ahead of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Having won the Tory leadership and become prime minister without a contest following David Cameron’s defeat in the EU referendum, May wanted to increase her 14-strong parliamentary majority and secure a mandate for her vision of Brexit.

The PM promised to take the UK out of the Single Market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, whilst agreeing a fair budgetary settlement and strong free trade deals with the EU. An increased majority would have given May the parliamentary strength to face down opposition not only from Remain-voting Tory MPs worried about the economic damage likely to result from a ‘hard Brexit’, but also from Brexiteer Tory MPs unwilling to accept any compromises en route to a settlement with the EU.

However, by mid-morning Friday – with one seat left to declare – the Tory party had 318 seats, having lost 12. Given that Irish republicans Sinn Fein traditionally refuse to take their seven seats in the 650-strong House of Commons, the Tories are just four seats short of a majority; and the 10-strong Northern Irish loyalist Democratic Unionist Party is likely to prop up a minority Tory administration. But the result is a massive blow to the reputation and authority of Theresa May, who took the decision to bring forward an election originally scheduled for 2020 and, in doing so, has much weakened her party’s grip on power.

As the result became clear, May’s team briefed reporters that the PM is determined to stay in post – despite suggestions from Corbyn and her Tory colleagues that she should step down. And the country does need a PM in post: with Brexit negotiations due to begin within days, the result caused consternation on the Continent. European Commission president Donald Tusk tweeted this morning: “We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end. Do your best to avoid a “no deal” as result of “no negotiations”.”

EU leaders will be wary of embarking on serious talks with May, who looks highly vulnerable to an internal leadership challenge or a parliamentary vote of no confidence. But the only clear alternative is of another Tory leadership contest, followed by another general election at which the new leader tries to secure a decent parliamentary majority – taking more crucial months out of the two-year Article 50 Brexit negotiation period, which ends on 29 March 2019.

EU and UK Remainer optimists point out that – given that two thirds of Tory MPs voted for Remain in the 2016 referendum – there is now a clear majority of Remain voters in Parliament. Any Tory-led government is also now dependent on the votes of a new intake of Scottish Tory MPs – who take a much softer line on Brexit – and on the DUP, who will be keen to avoid creating a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland. And certainly, May’s call for a mandate to deliver her version of Brexit has been rejected by the electorate. But the result creates instability within the UK political system that will make it extremely difficult for any PM to forge and hold a clear line on Brexit; absent a more decisive general election, the UK civil servants who’ve prepared for the start of Brexit talks will find their EU interlocutors highly sceptical about the current PM’s ability to deliver on any agreement.

The election campaign brutally exposed May’s weaknesses – particularly her insistence on taking key decisions without reference to Cabinet colleagues, and her reluctance to risk contact with the public or to debate openly with political rivals. One key moment came when May announced a new social care funding policy, increasing elderly people’s liabilities for care costs, without consulting her colleagues; days later, in the face of huge opposition, she had to scrap the idea. She was also criticised for refusing to take the risk of meeting the public, to the point where she sent the home secretary in her place to a TV debate featuring all the other major party leaders.

Many are now thinking along similar lines to former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull, who said this morning: “I don’t think she has the skill set. She doesn’t engage with people. Her judgements are fallible.”

Meanwhile, the Labour leader had a far better campaign than expected, and – much to the surprise of centrist Labour MPs and media commentators – seems to have attracted younger people and the politically disengaged into the polling booths. Having weathered an internal leadership challenge prompted by his lacklustre performance in the EU referendum, Jeremy Corbyn ran a starkly different campaign to May’s – holding public rallies around the country, and championing traditional leftist and anti-austerity policies.

Just as during the EU referendum, when Cameron’s relentless warnings about the dangers of Brexit lost out to the more optimistic message of the Leave side, May’s negative campaign – which focused heavily on the threat posed by a Corbyn-led ‘coalition of chaos’ – has proved less potent than the more ambitious and positive stance of Corbyn’s Labour, which unashamedly aims to upset the status quo.

Corbyn’s campaign clearly energised hard-to-reach sections of the electorate. Turnout was 69%, the highest since Tony Blair’s victory in 1997; and this is also the first time Labour has increased its strength at a general election since that year. The Labour vote increased most in seats with the largest number of young people and the biggest rises in turnout, suggesting that Corbyn succeeded in persuading those sceptical about the value of voting to make the effort on this occasion.

Speaking for many Tory moderates, the independent-minded backbencher Sarah Wollaston this morning criticised May’s emphasis on contrasting her personal leadership style with that of Corbyn. The PM’s support for “Fox hunting & changes to social care were turning points in how people felt about the PM in highly personalised campaign”, she said on Twitter.

Wollaston also attacked the aggressive approach of the Tory campaign, run by strategist Lynton Crosby: “Hope we never again have such a negative campaign. The public just don’t want US-style attack politics.” And in a reference to May’s dependence on two close advisers, she said: “I cannot see how the inner circle of special advisers can continue in post. Needs to be far more inclusive in future”.

Taking a step back, the result leaves this reporter with two over-arching conclusions.

For one, the Conservative Party first held and lost an EU referendum in order to see off the electoral threat posed by UKIP, then triggered Article 50 – starting the clock on a strict two-year period of negotiations – only to leave the country without an effective government just as talks start. This can only be called both enormously damaging to Britain’s interests, and massively incompetent.

Second, the anti-establishment sentiment that has been evident – in various guises – within the EU referendum, Trump’s election and the French presidential election has now emerged powerfully within a UK parliamentary vote. The UK public is, it seems, determined to answer any question with a noisy: ‘No!’ And this makes life difficult not only for Theresa May, but for any potential successors within the Tory party – for they would surely need to hold an election to secure a decent majority.

Given both the British public’s current mood, and the fact that – as May has just discovered – the electorate traditionally punishes those who hold unnecessary elections, the Tory leadership currently looks like something of a poisoned chalice. It is not at all clear how the UK can forge an agreed negotiating position in which its EU counterparts will have any faith.

So Britain is in a hole. And whilst it was David Cameron who carried out the early excavations, Theresa May has just made it a whole lot deeper.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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