Post Election Fallout in UK By Stephen Barber
On 8 June the British electorate gave its verdict on the snap general election called by Theresa May and her pitch as the “strong and stable” Prime Minister. It quickly became clear that not only had May failed to win the promised landslide majority by throwing away the 20 point opinion poll lead enjoyed at the beginning of the campaign but she had also lost the modest working majority won by David Cameron just two years earlier. The result surprised almost everyone and the minority administration it leaves raises questions about the ability of government to negotiate Brexit, pass any serious legislation or indeed survive in office.
As the political dust settles, several observations can be made. The first is the position of the Prime Minister herself. Commanding and presidential at the beginning of the campaign, she now appears weak, aloof, and as one former colleague put it “a dead woman walking.”
The Conservative party has so far been restrained in not piling into a fractious leadership election if for no other reason that another risky general election would surely have to follow pretty swiftly. But make no mistake, this parliament is not going to last the full five years and Mrs May will not be leading her party into the next election - whenever it comes.
At the moment there is little appetite for an early poll but mischief making over the summer could change that turning October into a possibility. The last time Britain had two elections in one year was 1974; coincidentally it was the last time Britain had a snap general election.
Now that the government has secured a deal with the 10 (ultra conservative) Democratic Unionist Party MPs of Northern Ireland, it could perhaps limp on for longer. In exchange for more than £1bn in extra public spending in the province, the DUP will support the government in parliamentary confidence motions, Budgets and Brexit legislation. It means the government could even survive for a couple of years, but longer than that really is unlikely.
This was not an easy deal to agree. Back in 2010 when the election resulted in the first hung parliament since the 1970s, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed a coalition in 5 days, publishing a full programme for government on the sixth. This simpler confidence and supply agreement has taken more than a fortnight to sign and makes the PM look weaker still.
There is another comparison with 2010. Back then the Conservatives won 306 seats, 11 fewer than 2017 while Labour's 258 was 4 behind what was won this time. Given the jubilation in Labour ranks today, it shows that momentum is everything in politics. Labour, in near terminal dysfunctionality before the campaign, views this as a kind of victory. A few weeks ago speculation was rife about Labour splitting post-election but the result has shored up support for leader Jeremy Corbyn, while it is the governing Conservatives who now appear fractious.
But the big story is what this means for Brexit. When she called the election, May claimed she needed a bigger majority, a mandate to deliver her brand of hard Brexit, a solid demonstration of power when she sat at the EU negotiating table. The electorate has declined to give her this and she finds herself without a mandate or indeed without authority to deliver really very much at all.
It means all sorts of possibilities are back on the table and this includes remaining inside the single market. Tory eurosceptics won't like it, but the election promotes the voices of the so called “sensibles.” Indeed, pragmatists will note there is now no majority in parliament for hard, soft or no Brexit.
The result is more uncertainty and the government appears to be carrying on as if nothing has happened. A two year parliament would (just) give space to negotiate exit from the EU on the timeline set out. But absolutely no one thinks this plausible even with a “strong and stable” government.
Stephen Barber (@StephenBarberUK) is Associate Professor of Public Policy at London South Bank University and a Senior Fellow of the Global Policy Institute.