Theresa May Hang On In Hung Parliament

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Theresa May

A hung parliament in Britain was less of a shock than the Brexit result about a year ago when a majority of British voters chose to quit the European Union. However, the media has dutifully expressed shock at the Conservative and Unionist Party losing its thin majority in the mid-term election. The fact that the global business did not react and pound sterling lost by about 2% only against the greenback illustrate the point. In fact, the Conservatives led by Prime Minister Theresa May still emerged as the largest political party falling short of an absolute majority by a mere 8 seats. With expected support from the Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party, the government will have a working majority. However, the unavoidable fact is that May hoped for a stronger mandate and ended up losing even her majority.

Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour party has reasons to be happy. First, its vote share improved very substantially to 41%, a feat last achieved more than 10 years ago. It also increased the number of seats to 262 from 233 in 2015. But his rival conservatives won 43% of popular votes — 6% more than what it got in 2015 when James Cameroon won the absolute majority, kicking out former coalition partner Liberal Democrats. Labour in comparison won 10% additional votes over its vote share in 2015.

Both the major parties increased their vote share at the cost of smaller parties — the Scottish National Party and UK Independent Party. The latter, which was on the forefront of the Brexit campaign, drew a blank. This is indeed a clear sign that British voters are no longer euphoric about Brexit, which they had voted for. The other loser has been the Scottish Nationalist Party, a party looking for separation from the United Kingdom. The party lost seats to both the Conservatives and Labour. With just 37% Scottish votes in this election, the party lost its right to demand a separation of votes in the near future. In comparison, the Conservatives and Labour won 56% of the Scottish votes.

Meanwhile, it seems that Theresa May will form the next government and will negotiate the separation deal with the European Union. The negotiations were expected to start in about 10 days from now. The British industry is understandably crestfallen, with a weaker government going in for the Brexit negotiations. Dependent as it will be on support from smaller parties, the British Prime Minister will be noticeably weak in negotiating a favourable deal unless Germany and France turn soft (which is unlikely). The EU is keen to start the separation negotiation at the earliest. This is a factor in favour of May to complete the government formation in a short time. It is working against Labour’s chances of forming a ragtag coalition. The claim of Corbyn that May should resign will fall flat.

However, the soon to commence Brexit negotiation will see a much sobered up Theresa May on the table. She had been talking tough; she has assured a hard bargain on behalf of Britain. She has lost the moral high ground after this election result even if she manages to hang on to power for the time being.

The other factor that is working in her favour is that the Conservatives do not have any other leader who could fill in the void should May quit. Boris Johnson might have emerged as the bookies’ favourite, but realpolitik is a different ballgame. Even for Johnson, this might not help in the long run. There will be another general election after the Brexit negotiation is complete and Britain is out of EU in 2019. In all likelihood, the incumbent prime minister will then be the least popular to lead again. The fact that Johnson has not yet thrown his hat in the ring is an indication.

There is one other problem arising out of this election. The Democratic Union Party, on whom May is banking for forming the next government, is in favour of a “soft Brexit” — which means Britain will maintain some sort of an economic co-operation with the EU. Unquestionably, the election result has thrown up soft Brexit as the only option. British voters, it seems, have learnt their lesson and distanced themselves from the romantic radicalism of the 2016 Brexit vote.

The election saw voters rallying towards either of the two national parties and avoiding the smaller ones. Clearly, voters everywhere want a strong, stable and a nationally representative government, not a chaotic coalition. The factor that did not receive much attention of the media analysts is the impact of the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester on the election. This had derailed the campaign of the incumbent prime minister. Her strong rhetoric against terrorism and particularly the human rights activists perhaps alerted many of them — those who are soft on terrorists for religious or academic reasons — and made them rally in favour of Jeremy Corbyn. This explains the Labour gain in some marginal seats.

Theresa May lost just 12 seats in the election while increasing her party’s vote share by 6%. Among the factors that went against May, who had a formidable 20 points lead when the election was declared, was her style of campaign. She could not connect to voters as a considerate leader, which her rival Corbyn, a seasoned campaigner, could. She was haughty, refusing to debate with Corbyn. She concentrated on media interviews to connect with the electorate while Corbyn went on campaign trails. This also shows that, in the age of social media, the mainstream media has lost its ability to influence opinion. Even in the land of media, Britain, this trend could be seen in this election.

With the permission of the Queen to form the next government, Theresa May comes back weakened by a dozen MPs to negotiate on Brexit. How she handles her electoral weakness and presents a strong British face in Brexit negotiation will be watched globally.