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An unexpected outcome

  • Published at 07:42 pm June 11th, 2017
An unexpected outcome

It was an odd vote.

European observers may be forgiven for thinking that British politicians are exceedingly bad judges of their own electorate. Cameron lost the Brexit vote last year and now May. Considering that both votes were essentially unnecessary, the blunder is astounding.

The result now is that Theresa May is a much weakened prime minister who, none the less, will still have to negotiate through the mammoth complexity of leaving the European Union -- and at the same time reach a new deal with the same EU.

Many are, of course, happy that May and the Tories got their nose bloodied. It was quite arrogant to call the snap election, and the election manifesto was beyond arrogant.

However, the situation for Britain just got a whole lot worse.

The prime minister and her government are weakened and the opposition is strengthened. Whatever deal the government is able to make with the EU in the Brexit negotiations will be subject to hostile scrutiny in parliament, a parliament that will also be much more demanding and keep looking at the government over the shoulders.

The EU negotiators will know that they are negotiating with someone who may not be able to give the final word.

Moreover, Theresa May campaigned on “No deal is better than a bad deal.” The slogan suggested she would be no push-over in the negotiations, and many have also read the slogan as an opening gambit meant for the EU’s ears as well as the voters.

Now, however, with a weaker parliamentary support, dissatisfaction within her own ranks, the ever-opportunist Boris Johnson breathing down her neck, and an eye (as always) on the next election, she will still need to portray herself as a strong leader.

Where she previously could have been willing to compromise as strong leaders do, she now will have to prove her strength and resolve and avoid compromises.

Compromises are so easily criticised, and British media loves a good hunt.

New players at the table?

A worrisome aspect of the election outcome is the influence the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland now enjoys as a government coalition partner.

That party’s aims were simple: First influence, which they got, and second, no special treaty for Northern Ireland.

This last point is important to them because they do not want the link between Northern Ireland and London to be weakened through a Brexit process.

That will now not happen.

On the contrary, it is the link between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic that will suffer. The border between the two parts of the island is likely to be harder, with Ireland remaining in the EU and Britain leaving it.

Northern Ireland has enjoyed peace since the Good Friday deal put an end to “the troubles,” precisely by toning down the border between the two parts of the island.

In reality, the border has been practically non-existent for many years. Now it will come back up again. Perhaps there will be border controls? Border guard patrols? There is no reason to believe that a weakened and DUP-dependent Prime Minister May will have any reason or inclination to soften the impact.

Would Corbyn have been better?

Possibly.

The Corbyn effect

It is to his credit that he managed to raise himself after the challenges and unfair criticism he was exposed to in his early days as Labour leader. He also had a much better campaign than May did. “For the many, not for the few” was a slogan that gave many a new sense of hope in politics. The number of youth registering for the vote is a testimony to his impact.

At the same time we should not forget that he is partly to blame for Brexit. His unclear position on the EU, including immigration, is likely to have helped the Leave campaign substantially.

‘For the many, not for the few’ was a slogan that gave many a new sense of hope in politics. The number of young registering for the vote is testimony to his impact

There is also no reason to think that he would have been able to get a substantially better deal with the EU -- possibly the opposite.

His position is so unclear that it would have been difficult for him to take a stance, and besides, had he won a few more seats and been able to form government, he would still have had to tackle a large and vengeful Tory party in parliament and a LibDem demanding a second referendum.

It is to Corbyn’s and Labour’s credit that they were able to shift some of the attention to social issues such as the NHS, and he has probably silenced, for a long time, any internal opposition in the party.

He might even have been a better prime minister for the many. But he would also have had to spend most of his days as PM negotiating with the EU.

Perhaps he got the best of all worlds. He won, in so many ways, but he did not win enough to become PM. This means he will not be burdened with the negotiations or the results. Instead he can make May’s life that much of a bother and quietly build Labour for the next crossroads five years down the line.

A good sign in all this mess is that most EU voices that have been heard are not gloating. They may be exasperated and probably would have preferred a strong May to negotiate with.

But they also seem to have accepted that it is for the British electorate to vote and decide on the composition of parliament and government.

Time to get down to business

Now that the election is over, the negotiations will have to continue.

They will be more difficult but they may also be less acrimonious. It has been rather stressful for European politicians and policy makers to have to deal with statements by British politicians that were more part of an internal British election campaign than real negotiations with the EU.

Now Britain has a parliament and a government, and both are likely to remain for five years -- until well after Brexit. Now they can all get down to business.

Arild Engelsen Ruud is Professor of South Asia Studies, Department of Culture Studies and Oriental languages, University of Oslo, Norway.