The UK election: Mayhem

As the dust settles on possibly the most stunning general election result the UK has seen since the 2nd World War, two questions dominate:  “How did it happen?” and “What happens now?”

For the second time in under twelve months a Conservative prime minister has found that a ballot that they did not need to call, and could not imagine losing, has blown up in their face.  Theresa May might have won the most votes and the most seats, but however much she may claim a victory and the right to try to form a government, she has suffered one of the most crushing defeats ever experienced by a sitting prime minister and her personal authority has completely evaporated.

What makes the defeat worse for her is the nature of the Conservative campaign that she ran.  It was overtly personal, almost presidential – a high risk strategy which if it had worked would have given her immense personal power, but in failure gives her no excuses, no-one to share the blame with.

So why did the campaign go so spectacularly wrong?  Many have pointed the finger at the party’s manifesto, and in particular the proposals for the funding of social care – we ourselves highlighted the effect of this policy in our last essay (see “Not following the script”, 4.06.17).  But on reflection, it was not so much the proposals themselves that fatally undermined May’s credibility as her inability to defend them, argue for them or justify them when challenged.  In other words, the social care issue was not so much the cause of May’s downfall but merely the catalyst for showing the world the real issue – her inability to demonstrate her suitability for the position of leader of the government.

The other cause of the Conservatives’ poor showing was without doubt the overall negative style of their campaign.  The manifesto offered little to anyone:  there was nothing for the young to enthuse about and it took things away from the old.  And this while Labour promised a society of social justice and a raft of policies particularly geared to young people.

This was compounded as the election came closer by a redoubling of the politics of fear and denigration of the opposition.   We commented on this in our last article, and will not repeat what we said there, except to observe that just as in so many other spheres of life, a continued and one-dimensional reliance on fear can be counter-productive.

This is what appears to have happened.  The politics of fear is above all the politics of being against something: the apogee of the politics of fear was the EU referendum, which pitched Leavers, who were anti the EU (without having any idea how a departure would be managed or what would follow it) against Remainers, who were anti leaving the EU (without really expressing much love for it or having any idea how to use the UK’s membership more constructively if the country voted to stay in).  With only a few exceptions, neither side put forward a positive message, and the main result was to exhaust the electorate and leave them numb and yearning for something, anything else.

Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues appear to have spotted this quicker than the Conservatives, and his message of optimism and hope resonated more with the electorate.   It mattered not that the financing of Labour’s policies was unclear – what attracted people was the message that life can be better, that there can be a brighter future.

This is an extremely powerful message to people tired of negativity and austerity, and if nothing else, the success of Corbyn’s approach and the election result that it produced should encourage the Conservatives to start to articulate more clearly what they are for, as well as what they are against.

For all that, Labour are still nearly 60 seats behind the Conservatives, and May is technically correct that she has the right to see if she can form an administration with the confidence of the House.  So the other question facing the UK is whether she will succeed, and how long she will survive.

As we write the terms of the deal that May hopes to do with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party are not known.  But it is going to be a challenge for the Conservatives to keep it going for very long.  The DUP combine populism with extreme social conservatism, and have a general desire for the hardest of Brexits except in Ireland where they want an open border and full free movement.  And any deal, even if it is not a full coalition, turns the Westminster government from honest broker in the muddy waters of Northern Irish politics into a partner of one of the two sides.  It is not just Sinn Féin who wonder how this can work or what the effect on the Peace Process will be.

Many people observe this, and see May’s almost total lack of personal authority in her party, and wonder if she can survive for long.  Indeed the general assumption is that there will be another election before too long, perhaps even later this year.

We do not agree.  The Fixed Term Parliament Act is still the law;  May side-stepped it (perfectly legally) to call the election using a provision in the Act, but she did not abolish it.  And under the terms of the Act, if May (or her successor) loses a vote of confidence but the House of Commons does not vote by a two-thirds majority for a dissolution, the Leader of the Opposition is given 14 days to see if he can form a government which can command the confidence of the House.

This puts the Conservatives in a difficult place.  If they go to the polls again under May they will almost certainly suffer a horrendous defeat, and it is not much better if they go to the polls under a new (and inevitably almost totally untried) leader – even if such a divided party could hold a leadership contest while still technically being the administration (and conducting Brexit negotiations at the same time), it would be their third leader since June last year, and the electorate would be most unlikely to warm to such a proposition.   So we do not see Tory MPs voting for a dissolution: even MPs with 10,000 majorities will be nervous.

It is only if Corbyn then in his turn fails to carry a confidence vote that the Act allows an early dissolution.  At this point the UK’s political mess moves from strange to surreal, because it might well be the case that even though Corbyn is newly installed in No 10, Labour is the party that wants an election – to capitalise on their good fortune and their opponents’ chaos – while the Conservatives might desperately want him to stay in power and have to struggle with the national issues, to prove how incompetent or unsuited he is and to give themselves a fighting chance in the election when it eventually comes.  So numbers of Conservatives could abstain or even vote with the Labour government in a confidence vote.  As we say, surreal.

In short, both major parties would probably prefer to go into the next election from the opposition benches, so that they can highlight the mess their opponents have made of trying to solve the multiple and complex challenges that face the country.

The chess term for where the Conservatives find themselves is Zugzwang.  They are not dead at the moment, but almost any move they might make hastens their demise.  And they have almost entirely brought it on their own heads, as they have destroyed first a decent (if rather shallow) prime minister in David Cameron, then a wooden (if earnest and hard-working) prime minister in Theresa May, and beyond both of those they have destroyed their own reputation for competence and being “the natural party of government”.   It is not entirely fanciful to think that the nearly 30 year civil war in the Tory party between the centre right (broadly speaking outward looking, entrepreneurial, internationalist) and the far right (broadly speaking nationalist, xenophobic, reactionary)[1], which successive Tory leaders from John Major onwards have grappled with but never resolved, may be coming to its dénouement.

It is ironic that in April of this year one of the UK’s two major political parties was deemed to be unhappy, in a state of civil war and led by an unelectable leader, while the other was at ease in its skin and led by a popular political maestro, and two months later nothing has changed – except that the two parties have almost completely swapped roles.


[1]               Our older readers may remember an earlier version of this internal strife in the 1980s, between Mrs Thatcher and those she derisively termed “the Wets”.