By Jeremy Black*
(FPRI) –Most British party leaders would be happy to win 42.4 percent of the votes cast, a million clear of the next party on 40 percent, and 160,000 votes more than Tony Blair won in 1997. They would be happy to have about eight percent more seats than the next party. They would be delighted to see the apparently inexorable tide of separatism in Scotland, after England the most populous part of the United Kingdom, hit hard by far heavier than anticipated losses by the Scottish National Party.
Well no. This is a defeat for expectations. Theresa May has delivered these results, but they were not what was expected and not what she had anticipated and called for. The election was meant to deliver a crushing majority over the Labour minority and to provide Mrs. May with a personal mandate for government: a mandate sufficient to persuade foreign governments to be accommodating over Brexit and to staunch likely opposition within Britain, including within her own Conservative Party. A combination of a poor and sometimes confused campaign, an opportunistic Labour opposition, and an electorate part of which was happier to vote for sentiment and illusion, has left her in a weak position.
Why and, more significant, where now? The last is especially important because the election on June 8 was also a defeat not only for Labour, which failed to become the largest party, and for the Scottish Nationalists, but also for other potential allies of Labour in what Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, termed a “coalition of chaos.”
The Welsh Nationalists and the Greens failed to increase their number of MPs (three and one, respectively), while the Liberal Democrats did not manage a breakthrough and remain a non-presence in the counties of Cornwall and Devon, their traditional center of backing. Labour’s traditional ally in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), collapsed. On the other flank, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), lost much of its support, as well as its sole MP.
The Conservatives held most of their seats, became the second largest party in Scotland, and look able to win an absolute majority in the House of Commons as the result of an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which strengthened its position as the leading party in Northern Ireland. Their most spectacular losses in the south of England, the Kensington and Chelsea constituency in London and Canterbury in Kent, will probably be regained at the next election. Moreover, across Britain as a whole, the Conservative share of the vote rose.
So why then does everyone see it as a failure? First Labour’s share rose even more, in part because the Conservatives did not win as much of the working-class UKIP vote as they had anticipated. Indeed, their hopes of a breakthrough in the Midlands and North of England and in Wales were thwarted. Seats where the Conservatives had hoped to unite the non-Labour vote of 2015 eluded them because there was no such unification. In contrast, in southern England, there was a consolidation of the non-Conservative vote, generally around Labour, although the Liberal Democrats did have gains, notably in Bath, Eastbourne and Twickenham. In part, this was the revenge of the “Remain” strongholds as seen in results in Bath, Cambridge, London, and Oxford. One of the paradoxes of the election was that Labour, which is also committed to Brexit, benefited, but perception is all and Labour is seen as far less committed to the “hard Brexit” with which May is identified.
Well what of wider implications? Two timescales can be identified: the next five years, and thereafter. No election need be held until 2022, and the Conservatives can afford to lose many MPs to death or defection before they endanger their position as the leading party. There is no appetite among the Conservatives for another general election or for a new election of a party leader. Instead, the assumption is that at some time before the next election May will step down. So, in the short to medium term, May will be Prime Minister, and until 2022, there will probably be a Conservative government, albeit a minority government dependent on the support of the DUP and, more generally, on the inability of the other parties to cohere and co-operate.
May’s weakness is likely to mean that she has to devote far more attention to domestic politics and, in particular, to relations with Northern Ireland and Scotland, while Brexit will probably prove even more divisive and difficult than had been anticipated. In addition, the economy and public finances are likely to be worse than expected, with the electorate’s disdain for the economics of truth and the truth of economics creating a major political problem. Moreover, terrorism has shown an unexpected capacity to set the agenda.
So there will be far less time for the power politics of the rest of the world. Indeed, in so far as Britain is a major player in the security architecture of the West, then that architecture has just been greatly weakened, and that at a time when the United States is scarcely setting a standard for consistency and purpose. Indeed, May was greatly weakened in the election by being linked to Trump. It was a symptom of a disturbed election that this should appear more unattractive to many electors than the resonances of Jeremy Corbyn, his links, past and/or present, with terrorist organisations and anti-Semites. The truly terrible nature of Corbyn’s backstory only seems to influence voters in Northern Ireland where his support for the nationalist cause is understood for what it was and might still be.
It is a sad commentary that while Corbyn, who in fact lost, appears stronger, May is far weaker. There is already much speculation about the next election. Boris Johnson remains in the running, but may be looking vieux jeu to much of the election. Amber Rudd had a good election, although she only narrowly held her seat at Hastings. For reasons of age alone, May will probably not lead the party into the 2022 election. This adds to the volatility of the situation.
The likelihood of May being able to adopt a vigorous international stance has been undercut by the election, not least because she can ill-afford unpopularity. And for 2022, the auspices are not good. At a time of very low unemployment and very low interest rates, 40% of the electorate was willing to vote for a party led by a Marxist. Redistribution was actively pushed, with the claim that Labour supported the “many against the few” and with the vilification of “the rich.” The naivety of the electorate extended to the Conservative electorate much of which rejected May’s attempt to raise the possibility of a solution for care for the elderly that would entail costs. The results were seen in many constituencies, including Eastbourne and Worthing; in the latter, there was a 10 percent swing to Labour.
Labour proved particularly effective on social media, while May failed to show the necessary interest in digital communications. As a result, the Conservatives were well and truly worsted in what proved a key battleground. This was important for all age groups, but notably so for the young. They had voted disproportionately little in the 2015 election and the 2016 referendum, but in 2017 turned out in strength and very much for Labour.
These circumstances and voter preferences may well deliver victory to Labour in 2022, a victory that may be helped by Liberal Democrat inroads. So, is Britain in terminal decline? We were, after all, apparently there in the 1970s, only to be rescued by North Sea oil, Margaret Thatcher, and the follies of the left. Whether there may be another reprieve is unclear. The electorate has been badly served by the politicians, but each reflects the other, and the relationship is made toxic by a media anxious for crisis. That is the element that is most notable at present. Any chance of consolidation is being eroded by an atmosphere of continual panic. This is not a basis for confidence on the part of foreign powers and commentators. Hopefully, May and her colleagues can keep their nerve. The country certainly needs them to do so.
About the author:
*Jeremy Black, an FPRI Senior Fellow, is professor of history at Exeter University
This article was published by FPRI