Theresa May continues to face strong criticism from different sections of her party for her decision to hold an early general election ahead of the dateline to sit down with the European leadership and discuss with them the complex facets related to Brexit.
The final results have laid bare several inconsistencies that marked her party’s efforts during the election campaign and ended up with her party obtaining lesser number of seats in the parliament than that required (326) for forming a government on their own. She has ended up having to seek the support of North Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and their 10 seats to be able to form a government.
This has, however, compounded the situation, as the DUP backs the UK leaving the EU, but has stressed on its border with EU member Ireland, remaining “frictionless.” BBC has reported that this deal would see the DUP promise to back the government in votes of no confidence and on budget issues. In return, the government would support or fund some of the DUP’s policies.
The Scottish National Party’s losses of 21 seats compared to their near complete dominance in Scotland in the last general election is leading to a reassessment of the demand for another independence referendum, widely seen as the cause of this shift in Scottish voter preferences.
The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the main opposition party, contrary to Theresa May’s expectations, ended up with 262 seats, adding 30 more seats through this election. This party received 12.82 million votes, almost 40.1% of the votes cast, compared to the Conservative Party’s 42.4% (which led them to winning 318 seats).
Analysts have pointed out that four factors appear to have worked strongly against Theresa May: The sensitivity created by the recent terrorist attacks carried out in the last three months and the belief that such attacks had been made possible due to her austerity drive during her stint as home secretary, that led to the reduction of the police and law enforcement force by nearly 20,000; her suggestion that she was going to reduce the government’s contribution towards social welfare; the higher presence of younger voters this time round.
The uncertainty created by this election within the British paradigm has drawn the attention of analysts and observers not only in Europe but also elsewhere -- the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, Russia, and Japan.
In Bangladesh, we followed the electoral process with interest -- particularly with regard to the re-election prospects of three Labour MPs: Tulip Siddique, Rupa Huq, and Rowshan Ara, all ladies of Bangladeshi origin.
It was a relief to know that all three MPs were re-elected with bigger majorities than their previous electoral performance.
It is nevertheless clear that May, after her failed election gamble, is not only fighting for her survival, but that it has generally undermined her authority and plunged Britain into a major political crisis days before the start of talks on June 19 pertaining to Brexit. The British pound has tumbled against the US dollar and the euro
One element is, however, very clear. Britain is expected to have a very fractious parliament. This has led to The Times to comment: “May stares into the abyss.” It has also added that Britain was “effectively leaderless” and the “country all but ungovernable.”
It is clear that the majority of British voters assume that Brexit will happen, not least because both major parties have endorsed the result. However, for the majority of UK voters, Brexit right now does not appear to be at the top of the list of their concerns. In most areas of Britain, more day-to-day issues, related to jobs and society, are clearly playing a greater role.
However, there can be no denying the fact that this election will determine what shape the Brexit negotiations will take, and, in particular, what compromises the UK might be willing to make.
It may be recalled that a common view before the election was that Theresa May, if she received a decisive mandate from the electorate this time round, would be able to push her party towards a compromise position, and sideline the hardline Brexiteers in her party.
It is clear that the election has changed the UK dynamics, but not in the way Theresa May wanted
However, now, the evolving circumstances appear to have modulated the paradigm. May, at present, is in a weaker position. She also knows that a significant move away from the hard Brexit scenario would increase internal party opposition, lead to renewed pressure from UKIP, and be slated by the Eurosceptic tabloids.
Theresa May will have to be a strong, principled leader, with a willingness to sacrifice her own political capital, to push through an acceptable deal.
Remainers within and outside her own party, as well as business interests, will in the meantime definitely exert more pressure on her to come to a deal in the Article 50 negotiations, ensuring that the “no deal” cliff edge is avoided at this stage.
This would entail compromises on EU citizen rights, the role of the European Court and the legacy payment, as well as accepting the status quo in any transition arrangements. This will be hard to sell to the Brexiteers in her own party.
In addition, the reliance of the Tories on the Unionist vote in Northern Ireland might further complicate finding a workable compromise with respect to the Northern Ireland border, where the DUP position could create conflict with the Republic of Ireland. So even for this initial step, uncertainty prevails.
Within this equation May will also have to take into cognisance different views expressed by Corbyn with regard to Brexit. Speaking on the BBC, Corbyn has expressed the belief that the Great Repeal Bill -- the Conservative plan to copy across all EU laws into UK law -- would now become “history.”
On Brexit, Corbyn noted that he wanted “tariff-free access to the European market.” He also wants to maintain membership of key European agencies, as well as European Convention on Human Rights and European Court of Human Rights.
The ticking clock
It is clear that the election has changed the UK dynamics, but not in the way Theresa May wanted. Instead of creating a stronger leadership, able to negotiate with the EU, there is now significant uncertainty. In the meantime, the two year clock will continue to tick on.
At the same time the new weakened UK government will have to define its negotiating position rather quickly and come to the table far more willing to compromise than has been the case for the past 11 months.
It would be worthwhile to note here that minority governments of this kind have not been uncommon in Britain. Conservative John Major survived without a majority in the mid-1990s. Similarly Labour’s Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governed with minorities for much of the 1970s.
However, it must also be remembered that governments of this type can be quite constrained in what they can do. This consequently might prove to be a huge challenge given the complexity of the Brexit negotiations.
They can also be unstable and short-lived, if the understanding between the parties breaks down and fresh elections have to be called.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]