The Election that Did Not Run to Plan
The campaigns leading up to the June 8 general election in Britain have not followed Prime Minister Theresa May’s playbook, which goes something like this. Mrs. May called the election because she found it hard to manage parliament with a majority of only seventeen seats. She wanted to take advantage of the Labour Party’s weakness to increase her majority and to win the voters’ endorsement both for a “hard” Brexit and for her economic and social policies. She also saw the election as an opportunity to shake off the policies of her predecessor David Cameron and to obtain a vote of confidence from the population in her own right.
The prime minister knows that 2017 probably marks the high-water mark of her popularity before the public feels the negative effects of Brexit. Bringing the poll forward by two years means that the first post-Brexit general election will now likely be in 2022 rather than 2020 — time enough, Mrs. May doubtless thought, for the population to recover from the shock of withdrawal on March 29, 2019, especially if Brexit turns out to be jumping off a “cliff edge.” She also hoped to see off the United Kingdom Independence Party, which had lost the reason for its existence, now that Britain is on the path to withdrawal from the EU.
The ostensible reason for calling an early election was that parliament was out of line with the country, in that a majority of MPs still favored continued EU membership or, at least, a smooth, phased withdrawal. The prime minister also claimed that an increased majority would strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations.
But the best-laid plans often go awry and things have certainly not played out as the prime minister expected. The first setback was a bungled last-minute decision, at the behest of her closest personal advisor, to add to the Conservative Party platform a pledge that elderly people would no longer have to exhaust their assets to pay for care during their lifetimes but, instead, that the state would recoup the costs from their estate after their death. This so-called “dementia tax” caused an uproar and was quickly withdrawn. So much for her slogan “strong stable leadership.”
The next setback arose from the prime minister’s decision not to participate in the television debate among contending party leaders. Her opponents portrayed this as cowardly, especially after Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reversed his initial decision and drove to the studio to join the debate, despite the prime minister’s absence. She could not sidestep a subsequent live television interview in which members of the public vociferously rejected her claims about improved living standards, especially for health service workers.
These antics provided an opportunity for a remarkable comeback by Mr. Corbyn, widely dismissed by his opponents as a bemused antediluvian on the far left. His party’s giveaway election manifesto has actually gained some traction with the public, while Mrs. May’s credibility has frayed at the edges. Mr. Corbyn has run a surprisingly effective campaign, even if the content of his policies does not bear much scrutiny. He, too, was subject to searching questions by a studio audience but emerged relatively unscathed. He succeeded in narrowing the gap in the opinion polls between the two main parties and in raising doubts about the landslide victory that Mrs. May and most observers had expected.
The appalling terrorist attack in London on June 3, following the Manchester suicide bombing last month, has added to Mrs. May’s woes. Her proposed crackdown recalled President Donald Trump’s onslaught against Muslim immigrants. Her statement that “enough is enough” rang as hollow as her earlier vapid expression “Brexit means Brexit.” Worse, she herself has been directly responsible for internal security for the last seven years, first as home secretary (interior minister) and then as prime minister. Her fighting speech looked like playing politics with human tragedy.
As to Brexit, the unified stand of the 27 member states behind the European Commission’s uncompromising negotiating directives calls into question the British prime minister’s assertion that the election will strengthen her hand in the negotiations. The size of Mrs. May’s parliamentary majority – which now may be at risk – is largely irrelevant to other European leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron themselves face parliamentary elections over the coming months and see Brexit as secondary to keeping their own countries and the EU together.
Brits concerned about the fallout from a hard Brexit hoped that a big electoral win would give Mrs. May the flexibility to compromise in the negotiations, accepting, for example, a smooth transitional period during which EU rules will continue to apply. This was always doubtful — incoming Conservative Members of Parliament were picked for their impeccable Brexit credentials. In fact, a smaller Conservative majority (which, according to the unstable polls in the last week, is one possibility) and gathering economic storm clouds might actually do more to pull the prime minister back from the Brexit cliff edge. Should a scenario no one seriously imagined at the start of the campaign — a hung parliament or even a Labour win — play out, however, the fallout in terms of the EU negotiations is hard to predict. Whatever the election result, Britain is in for a bumpy ride.
Sir Michael Leigh is Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.