Goodbye to Hard Brexit
After the third national election in two years (two general elections and the Brexit referendum), the British public are watching the political establishment struggle to make sense of a deeply fractured mandate.
Prime Minister Theresa May called fresh general elections to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations. Running a heavily personalised campaign that promised ‘strong and stable leadership’, she hoped to cash in on her high approval ratings and on the dismally low ratings of her key opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The results—a hung parliament, with the Conservatives hanging on as largest party but without a majority, and large gains by Labour— have turned the electoral landscape on its head.
What happened? In part, this is a story of major reversals in party fortunes during the election campaign. The Conservative Party faced controversies over its manifesto (a decision not to cap social care bills for the elderly was labelled a ‘dementia tax’ that would penalise those with more complex medical conditions), May appeared aloof and arrogant, declining to appear in televised leaders’ debates and refused to engage on her intended strategy in upcoming Brexit negotiations.
In the final weeks, terrorist attacks in Manchester and London left the Conservatives under fire from Labour for overseeing a drop in police numbers. Meanwhile, much of the election debate focused not on Brexit, but on the state of public services and austerity. None of this could have been predicted at the outset of the campaign.
Usually voters make up their mind before the campaign and some seats are deemed so safe, parties don’t bother to contest them seriously. Brexit upset many of those certainties this time.
The support base of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the populist antiimmigration and proBrexit party, evaporated. The Conservatives picked up most of the UKIP vote in Leave voting seats—a constituency to whom May appealed with her ‘hard Brexit’ platform. They lost support in Remain voting areas, especially English university towns.
The class basis of voting shifted, with the Conservatives doing better in working class northern English seats, and Labour—the traditional party of the working class—doing well in middle class, urban seats. The elections also confirmed a generational divide in British politics. The major uncertainty going in to the election had been whether young people, who are more proEuropean and have been enthused by Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, would turn out to vote in force. They appear to have been an important factor in many seats won by Labour.
What next? May’s leadership now looks anything but ‘strong and stable’, and her standing is irreparably damaged within her own party. She is attempting to reach a governing arrangement with the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland. But the main question is how long May will last before there is a leadership challenge within the party, or a vote of no confidence in parliament.
Government appointments since the election indicate softer Brexit voices may be given greater space. Opposition MPs want parliament to have more say in scrutinising the Brexit strategy. The results may therefore lead to some softening of the approach to Brexit, but a weakened May will also face a more united bloc of EU leaders who will seek concessions from the UK that ensure their own voters do not view life outside the EU as an attractive cause. The chances of the Brexit negotiations collapsing have also increased.
Brexit will overshadow all other foreign policy debates for the next few years. While May’s first nonEuropean overseas visit as prime minister was to India, there will be limited bandwidth in this new government for focusing on postBrexit relationships such as that with India.
The election does open the possibility of rolling back proposals such as including international students in immigration targets. British businesses and universities will support it, and it will be good news for Indian students seeking to study in the UK.
The question now is how long May will last till there is a leadership challenge within her party