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Theresa May is right to stay (for now)

  • Published at 06:25 pm June 10th, 2017
Theresa May is right to stay (for now)

Prime Minister Theresa May got into her armoured Jaguar mid-morning Friday and, with her husband Philip, was driven to Buckingham Palace, where she told the Queen that she would form a new government. The Queen, as she has done for over six decades, agreed with her prime minister.

May returned to Downing Street where, looking calm and fresh after a hard night, announced that she planned to form a government to “lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country.”

“What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” she said, “and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the general election, it is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist Party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons.”

Not a word in the speech about the drop in the Conservative vote, nor of a campaign, commanded by herself and her aides, which failed to ignite and certainly nothing on the strong increase in the Labour vote led by Jeremy Corbyn, a man she has mocked incessantly since she took office.

Guide the country

She will stay, establish a government (with “our friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist Party” of Northern Ireland) and then “guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks that begin in just 10 days.”

Her first negotiation, pre-Brexit, will be with a party she hardly knows that has said it will bargain hard for a good deal. She needs them too much to fail, but the deal’s not signed yet. May has shown remarkable coolness in the aftermath of what the media were already screaming to be a disaster. Wholly in tune with a woman with an aversion to populist gestures, an insatiable appetite for work, papers, practicalities.

And in this, she was right. She must stay on, must form a government which can frame a negotiating strategy, must calm the febrile political atmosphere. And since that was the right thing to do, she seems to have thought, best do it without a display either of disappointment or false humility. Out of step with today’s demand, especially in the media, for contrition, apology and even tears. But that’s the way she is.

Britain will now seek a softer exit taking back government powers from the EU while still trying to retain access to the single market

The Corbyn threat

For all her cool, the result was a blow, with large consequences. As with the surprise Brexit vote a year ago and the election of President Donald Trump last November, this election saw an apparent no-hoper, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader -- a man who for all of his political life has supported far left, even militant movements, consistently voted against his party and bitterly opposed the EU and NATO -- came close to winning. His reconstruction of himself as an amiable man who had spoken to groups like Hamas only in the interests of achieving peace was a media triumph.

For the UK, a dreary season of uncertainty, weak government, and political maneuvering is certain. The results  showed Conservatives winning 318 seats in a House of Commons where 326 seats are needed for the barest of majorities. They are the winners and losers at the same time -- in the lead, but not in power.

Labour, with 262 seats, is similarly a loser and winner at the same time: In second place, but with a result much better than expected.

Most of the other parties -- Liberal Democrats (12 seats), Scottish Nationalists (35), Welsh Nationalists (4) and the Greens (1) -- are broadly liberal-leftist and anti-Brexit. They could form part of a “progressive coalition,” an outcome which Labour supporters and members of Parliament were proposing as the results

If the Conservatives can count on the 10 seats won in Northern Ireland by the Democratic Unionist Party, they would have a fragile majority. Indeed, Northern Ireland might save May’s Conservatives in another way if the Republican Party Sinn Fein follows party policy by not taking up their seven seats. This will give a slightly plumper cushion to a Tory majority.

A leader diminished

May, a leader much diminished, must now bear the burden of entrenching a majority able to confront the larger challenge of negotiating Brexit before -- probably inevitably -- she will go, either through her own resignation or a successful challenge from a party colleague. Boris Johnson, the jaunty foreign secretary, is the bookmakers’ favourite. If they are right, President Trump will have a competitor for scandal headlines.

The Brexit discussions are due to start on June 19.

When and if that happens, those, mainly in the Conservative party, who want as complete a break as possible with the EU, will find they are much weakened. This was a complex result: The Conservative vote actually increased, even as seats fell, which did not cancel out the pro-Brexit referendum of last June. But it is likely to mean that Britain will now seek a softer exit taking back government powers from the EU while still trying to retain access to the single market.

For that, there will need to be a deal on the free movement of labour within the Union -- one of the main reasons a majority of the British voted to leave. The EU negotiators would be wise to focus on that. Not to force the UK to take it or leave it, but to discover how much the other 27 EU states wish to retain free movement, and how far they wish to modify it. For that, too, there may be a deal.

Politics no longer takes place in smoke-filled rooms, since tobacco, alas, is banned everywhere. But in the cleaner air of Brussels, London, Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere, the future of the UK, the EU, and even NATO, will need to be hammered out one more time.

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine. This article was originally published in Reuters.

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