Alex Continues his look at the big news stories in the Year That Was 2017
Not yet a year into her Premiership and Theresa May announced her intentions to call an early election on 18th April. With the Tories 20 points ahead in the polls over a fractured Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, May was seeking to secure a majority greater than the 14 she inherited from her predecessor David Cameron. She pitched it as giving her the strong negotiating hand in Brexit talks. The slogan that would come back to haunt her was “Strong and Stable”. May’s campaign was Presidential with the focus on her over the party. Things soon unraveled when May presented her robotic demeanour alongside a manifesto perceived as dull whilst attacking her base. The polls narrowed in the final days of the campaign and come election night the confusion began. At 10pm the exit poll predicted the Tories would be the largest party yet they would lose the majority they had won just 2 years prior. A night of mixed results, May came away with 330 seats, losing 13, however the Tories gained 13 seats in Scotland, their best result since 1983. Labour also came back from defeat in Scotland by getting a total of 6 seats. The dominant SNP who took 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in 2015 lost 21 seats but remain the third largest party in Westminster ahead of the Liberal Democrats who had bounced back to 12 seats. Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg became a casualty of the ballot box, losing his seat to Labour in Sheffield Hallam. If not doing as bad as expected was a mark of victory then Corbyn had a good night. Labour gained a total of 30 seats yet still fell significantly short of an electoral victory. Despite this Labour acted defiant with Corbyn stating that he would topple May’s government within weeks, this then became after the Queens Speech, then after the Autumn Budget. The time for toppling the government kept being pushed back! Whilst weak, May’s government remains in charge at the end of the year. Pundits reckon that May will see out Brexit before she is replaced in 2019/20.
Alongside Brexit there were key elections in both France and Germany. In France voters gave the Presidential candidates from the two main parties a kicking in the first round with neither the candidate for the Governing Socialists or the opposition Republicans making it through. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National faced Emanuel Macron, a former Minister who set up a new centrist party Republique En Marche in 2016. Whilst Macron came top in the first round with 24% Le Pen was not far behind on 21.3%. In unchartered political waters pundits weren’t sure what to expect. Le Pen was riding the Brexit wave in the polls, painting a post-EU vision for France whilst Macron was the Europhile candidate. After the second round Macron was the clear winner gaining 66.1% of the vote, crushing Le Pen’s hopes of gaining a minimum of 40%. Le Pen did significantly better than her father Jean-Marie who secured 17.8% in 2002 against Jacques Chirac. Macron’s new party took 306 seats in the legislative elections becoming the largest party. The Republicans came second taking 112 seats Whilst Le Pen’s Front National took 8. Macron’s victory signaled the 2nd Pro EU victory after the Netherlands voted to keep their pro-EU Prime Minister in 2016. This left Germany as the last significant election within the Eurozone.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats was fighting for a 4th term in office and went into the election with a 20 point lead over Martin Schulz of the Socialists. Even with this poll lead there was a rising threat from the far right Alternative for Deutschland (AFD). Merkel was branded as the safe pair of hands and the experienced defacto leader of Europe. The result came in which saw Merkel lose 65 seats and 8.6% of the vote on the previous election. Similarly, the Socialists lost 40 seats and 5.2%. of the vote. Votes were picked up by the AFD who became the third largest party in the Bundestag with 94 seats and 12.6% of the vote. This meant far-right politicians had entered the German Parliament for the first time since the Nazis. Initially the Socialists ruled out joining a grand coalition to stop the AFD becoming the opposition party in the Bundestag, meaning Merkel had to seek a “Jamaica Coalition” with the Greens and Free Democrats (Together the party colours match that of the Jamaican flag). The coalition talks collapsed on 20th November which forced Merkel and the Socialists to reconsider a grand coalition. Polls of the electorate indicate they would favour another election to try and break the deadlock, this would most likely signal the end of Merkel as Chancellor, especially if further ground was lost the AFD. Coalition talks are set to continue after the Christmas break following internal votes of both parties.
Another noteworthy election in Europe was that of Austria which saw Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party win the most seats in the election with a 15 seat gain and 7.5% increase in the vote share. The incumbent Socialists lead by Christian Kern retained the same number of seats but only gained a 0.1% increase in their vote share. Following coalition talks between Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache of the right-wing Freedom Party, the government was instated in December. Sebastian Kurz becomes Chancellor aged 31 prior to this role he was made Foreign Minister in 2013. An impressive career at such a young age Kurz will be one to watch whilst an eye will be kept on his populist coalition partners.
14th June saw a devastating fire rip through Grenfell Tower in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The fire quickly spread through the 24 stories. Initial estimates that the death toll would breach 100 were not realised, however, months after the fire the death toll was confirmed as 71. Occupants of 23 of the 129 flats died. The fire took 24 hours to get under control and 60 hours before they extinguished it entirely. Whilst the investigation continues it is thought that the fire started due to a fridge catching fire. The speed at which the fire spread was caused by the combustible cladding. This lead to a call from the government to have cladding tested on existing buildings. Early tests showed 100% of panels sent for testing failed fire tests. Both Kensington Council and the National government came under fire due to a poor response and inaction on previous warnings about the safety of the building from residents. Whilst the local community pulled together to help the victims the council was slow to find accommodation for them. Kensington and Chelsea is one of the wealthiest London Boroughs yet Grenfell highlighted the gap between the social classes. Whilst large homes of Russian Oligarchs laid empty residents of Grenfell were living in hotels and community centers. A public inquiry has been launched by the government and the leader of the council was forced to resign following the disastrous response to the crisis. The private company tasked with running and maintaining the building was quickly stripped of its contracts by the council which covered other social housing in the borough. The government is now being pushed hard to pass legislation ensuring fire sprinklers are retrospectively fitted into existing apartment blocks. The tower itself is set to be demolished in late 2018. The public inquiry is likely to be a big story for 2018 with survivors being hostile towards the chair Sir Martin Moore-Black. A criminal investigation is underway alongside the inquiry to assess potential corporate manslaughter charges.
Tensions heated up once again on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea continues in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korea had launched numerous test missiles into the Sea of Japan towards the beginning of the year. This led to a war of words between President Trump and North Korea. Trump stated that America was willing to solve the Korean problem by itself. North Korea responded by saying it was ready to go to war with America. On the 4th July North Korea launched a long-range missile into the Sea of Japan. The Missile was in flight for 39 minutes and reached an altitude of nearly 3km. This demonstrated a significant step forward towards nuclear missile capabilities. In August Trump told the press that North Korea would be met with “Fire, fury and frankly powers, the likes of which the world has never seen before”. North Korea responded by threatening attacks on U.S Military bases on the U.S territory of Guam. Korea also asserted that reasonable dialogue wasn’t possible with Trump. For the first time since 2009 North Korea fired a missile over the Japanese island of Hokkaido which caused sirens to go off on the island and advised people to seek shelter. In September, North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un responded on television to Trump’s threats by calling Trump a “Mentally deranged dotard” whilst pledging hard-line counter measures. The year ends with more sanctions being placed on North Korea with the support of Russia and China and the hope that North Korea will come to the negotiating table.
This hashtag went viral as a stance against sexual abuse following the allegations against Film Producer Harvey Weinstein. The New York Times and New Yorker reported in October that dozens of women had accused Weinstien of sexual harassment, assault or rape. After these allegations Weinstien was sacked from the company he co-founded with his brother and later expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. More than 80 women from LA, New York and London have come forward including Actresses who have worked with Weinstien. The #MeToo campaign encouraged victims of sexual assault and sexual violence to share their stories. The scandal spread with other big names being accused of sexual misconduct. Kevin Spacey was accused by actor Anthony Rapp of making sexual advances towards him when he was aged 14. Spacey responded by saying he didn’t remember the event in question but apologised for his inappropriate drunken behaviour. Spacey was criticised for using this apology to announce that he was in fact gay. 15 others also made allegations against Spacey including a member of the Norwegian Royal family and eight people who worked on the Netflix series, House of Cards which Spacey had the lead role in. Netflix in response announced that they had suspended work on the latest series of House of Cards, adding that they had always intended for this to be the last series. As more allegations transpired Netflix announced they were parting ways on all projects with Spacey and that he wouldn’t have a role in the new series of House of Cards, nor would the Gore Vidal biopic would not be aired. Spacey was also edited out of the Ridley Scott film “All the Money in the World” and replaced by Christopher Plummer.
The spotlight was shining on Male attitudes towards women in the workplace and the role of being someone’s superior in sexual assault cases. In the UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned from office following allegations about his own conduct around women. Whilst the lead story involved Fallon touching Journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer’s Knee, Hartley-Brewer expressed that she did not see herself as a victim of sexual assault and that she dealt with the matter there and then. First Secretary of State (and defacto Deputy Prime Minister) Damian Green also became embroiled in a scandal involving porn found on his Parliamentary laptop eight years ago. After initially denying any knowledge of the contents of the laptop an internal inquiry determined that he did and that allegations made against him by a party activist were plausible. Green was sacked by the Prime Minister on the last day before Parliament broke up for Christmas.
The #MeToo campaign organisers known as “The Silence Breakers” were named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. The cover featured Susan Fowler, ‘Isabel Pascual’, Ashley Judd and Tarana Burke.
Not one but two Royal announcements this year. Firstly the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announced they were expecting their third child. Met with differing responses, particularly from BBC News presenter Simon McCoy who announced that he would be booking holiday over the time the Duchess was due.
Prince Harry also announced his engagement to American actress Meghan Markel. The wedding date has been set for 19th May and will be hosted at Windsor Castle.