Alex takes a look at the aftermath of May’s gamble, with no party victorious
They say 24 hours is a long time in politics. #GE2017 was filled with 50 of these 24 hour slots and yes, things changed. The Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative Party went into this election with a 20-point poll lead ahead of Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn. With a clear message that the election would be focused on gaining a huge 100-seat majority to mandate her Hard Brexit. I don’t think anyone was ready for the results we got in the early hours of Friday 9th June.
Britain once again has a hung parliament, just two years on since David Cameron won a small majority for the Conservative Party. As much as May wanted the focus of the election to be about Brexit and the “Strength and Stability” the Conservatives under her leadership would offer, she in reality had no control over the framing of the election shortly after calling it.
Labour was on the attack on the issues facing us at home: austerity economics, a crushed NHS, a pending crisis within our schools, homelessness. Labour was talking about the things that affected all our lives individually, whereas May was talking about needing a strong hand for Brexit.
The Conservatives were inward-looking when they launched the Brexit referendum, a vote that was designed to silence the Eurosceptics within the party, which backfired for Cameron and saw his resignation. May, having refused to call an early election time and time again, finally saw an opportunity as Labour fell behind in the polls – apparently beyond salvation. She called the election to fill her party with new May loyalists, to silence the rebels within her party that were ultimately going to cause problems.
Conservative election chief Sir Lynton Crosby ran the kind of campaign he always runs: focussing on a few issues, repeating a catchphrase, and turning the election into a presidential race with the focus entirely on Theresa May. The problem was May’s arrogance. Her disregard for the electorate started to show, especially when she launched the party manifesto. It was vague, uninspiring and even turned on core Tory voters.
May was so confident of victory that she attacked pensioners as much as she did the working classes. She assumed the UKIP voters would swing back to the Tories. She assumed the pensioners would vote the same way they always do and she assumed the young people wouldn’t turn out and vote. She was so sure of herself she didn’t even feel the need to go to the televised head-to-head debates.
Let’s look at the other side: Labour. Now I am going to eat some humble pie (not the whole thing, but maybe a slice). I have been a Corbyn critic and I will admit I thought Labour were heading for disaster. On the night we saw a semi-resurgence. A million young people registered to vote and they helped turn that tide.
This election was May’s to lose but to give him his credit, Corbyn is a campaigner. He came to my home town to launch the Labour manifesto, a week after key parts had been leaked. Whether this leak was from the Corbyn team or disgruntled backbenchers, it worked in his favour. For the entire week, his team were quizzed about the manifesto and the only answer they all gave was, “You’ll have to wait until we launch it.” This meant the media were exhausting their attacks before they got to the launch and it also meant they were airing Labour policies which caught people’s attention.
The manifesto, which launched before the Conservatives I should add, offered an extremely different vision: increased taxes only on the top 5% of earners, increased corporate taxes, renationalisation of our rail and utilities, vast funding for the NHS and a National Education Service bolstered by the scrapping of tuition fees.
For many, Corbyn still appeared weak on Brexit, defence, and foreign policy – which continued to be evident in the so-called TV debates. But Labour had costed the majority of its manifesto, something the Conservatives failed to do. The focused moved from the leadership to the manifestos, even with car-crash interview after car-crash interview, Labour was coming out strong and the poll ratings kept getting closer.
May had squandered her 20 point lead to below 10, on average.
On election night, I was locked away at the count in my local constituency, focused on the numbers coming in for the campaign I had been working on. I was only able to get results when I left the floor to go grab a coffee. What became clear was that things weren’t going May’s way. However, the household name losses didn’t really come from the Conservatives. Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems lost his seat to Labour. In Scotland, former First Minister Alex Salmond and SNP Leader in Westminster Angus Robertson lost their seats to Conservatives.
“Knife edge” or “Too-close-to-call” was probably the phrase of the night. Home Secretary Amber Rudd came close to losing her seat, as did current Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. Labour was making gains in Scotland (something that many pundits said wouldn’t happen), as were the Conservatives. The last historic victory for the SNP was being replaced by a more realistic number of MPs for them, which could cause a re-think on Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a second independence referendum.
The Lib Dems were predicted to lose seats and go down to six but they ended up increasing their numbers even with some losses. The election saw Sir Vince Cable regain his seat in Twickenham and Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. It is clear to say that UKIP are now finished as a party nationally – at present they still remain the party with the largest number of British MEPs in Brussels and they also have five assembly members in Wales – but in the general election their votes totalled 593,852 votes throughout the entire country. A decrease of over 3 million votes.
So after 50 days and millions of pounds, what are we left with?
We are seeing a swing back to the two-party system of the Conservatives and Labour. With the Conservatives gaining more votes than they got in 1992 under John Major, and Labour gaining a similar number of votes to Gordon Brown in 2010 (an upswing not seen, however, since Attlee). Both parties increased their national vote tallies yet neither has a majority to govern. The Conservatives with their 318 seats will rely on the Norther Irish Democratic Unionist Party with their 10 seats to form a majority in the Commons.
What we won’t be seeing is a formal coalition deal like we saw between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in 2010. The DUP will support the Conservatives on major bills such as the Queen’s Speech and the budget, alongside key policy votes. But no doubt the DUP will want the Government’s support in return when they go back to the table in the Northern Irish Assembly of Stormont, which has been without a government since May last year.
There are concerns from both within and without the Conservatives about this deal. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has asked for assurances that the DUP won’t steer an anti-LGBT agenda. Davidson herself is an out lesbian politician. The DUP also has strong opposition to abortions which is restricted in Northern Ireland. However, the two parties will match well on Brexit. Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU but has huge concerns about a deal imposing a physical border between them and the Republic of Ireland – something they don’t want to do, and something that could cause problems with the peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
There are talks that Labour could form a “Rainbow Coalition” as an alternative to the Con-DUP alliance, but this would not be a strong one as it would mean having Labour (262) join with the SNP (35), Lib Dems (12), Plaid Cymru (4) and Greens (1) – which still only gets to 314 seats. May on her own has 318. You need 326 seats for a majority, but if we take into account Sinn Fién (who won 7 seats but don’t take them up because they refuse to pledge allegiance to the Queen) and the Speaker’s seat (he doesn’t vote on bills), you still need 318 for a working majority. So Labour would have to win over the DUP or Sinn Fién would have to change the habit of a lifetime. Either way Labour can’t govern. What Corbyn now has to do is prove that Labour can be an effective opposition and in turn show they are ready to form the next government.
Already, we are hearing that Corbyn will draw up an alternative Queen’s speech to challenge May’s, which will be the first test of the Conservative-DUP pact. The second test will be the budget in the autumn. Labour has a real opportunity to stall and hurt this government, but if we see a return to the weak leadership of Corbyn then the election was really all for nothing. No doubt his MPs will now fall in line, but they won’t give him a long honeymoon period if things return to the way they were before. Corbyn has done enough to fight off a leadership challenge, now he has to prove he can lead and not just campaign.
As for the Conservative-DUP government, will it last? Well, history shows in British politics that minority governments never last long. The only thing May has in her favour is that Parliament needs a two-thirds majority to call a general election before the end of a five-year term.
Even with this safety net, May is severely weakened. She can’t carry out a huge reshuffle of her cabinet for fear of starting an internal fight. The main figures of Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, David Davies and Sir Michael Fallon will all keep their jobs. Already we have seen the resignations of May’s top two advisors in an alleged attempt to fight off a leadership challenge. Not only will May have to negotiate with the DUP on key legislation, but the rebels in her party, those she wanted to drown out with an increased majority, will now be able to bend the Prime Minister to their will.
The Cabinet will not take authoritarian leadership from the Prime Minister so individual departments may now run themselves and just consult the PM. May will enter the Brexit negotiations weakened by the electorate and on notice by her party. The likelihood is, if there is a leadership challenge then we will probably go back to the polls, because a new leader would still control a minority government.
If May is paralysed in Parliament we will probably go back to the polls depending on how frustrated her back benchers become.
If you thought this election would provide everyone with stability, you were wrong.