Where were you when the first exit poll dropped? Personally, I was walking through Leicester Square, bumping into people as I stared transfixed at my phone whilst trying to hear whatever David Dimbleby was saying. For all the understandable cynicism around politics, nights like last night help explain why so many people are addicted to it: it was pure theatre.
I’ve not had a lot of sleep, so this post will briefly cover some of my initial takeaways from the dramatic General Election 2017 results.
Theresa May’s personal authority and mandate is comprehensively shattered. She ran this election on a very specific platform. She was the Strong and Stable Leader. Corbyn represented the Coalition of Chaos. Her Battle Bus featured her own name in gigantic letters with very little mention of the Conservative Party. This was an election campaign designed around one personality: Empress Theresa. That strategy utterly failed. The more voters saw of May, the less they seemed to like her. Nearly every marginal seat visited by May voted against her (The Telegraph amusingly labelled this phenomenon “Theresa’s Kiss of Death”). Her robotic persona and refusal to reveal even the most basic aspects of her human side came across terribly. My own highlight was her determinedly non-committal answers to trivial questions like “Sherlock or Midsomer Murders?” Theresa’s answer? “I’ve watched both of them.” And that’s without even mentioning the now-infamous ‘Fields of Wheat’.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, did manage to pass the political equivalent of the Turing test by at least coming across like a real human being capable of thoughts, rather than someone grown in a test tube by Lynton Crosby. Hopefully other politicians will now take this message on board and stop communicating as if they’ve inhaled talking point memos. Honestly, it’s ok to be a normal human with opinions that aren’t pre-tested by focus groups. In fact, it seems people actually quite like it. Overall, Labour’s share of the vote went up by around 10%, from 30% to 40%. Considering the monumentally low expectations set for Corbyn before this election, the result was very impressive. The initial signs are that Labour was helped by a large increase in the youth turnout. Interestingly, it also seems that many UKIP voters fleeing their sinking ship chose to return to Labour rather than moving en masse to the Conservatives, as was anticipated. For now, at least, it seems the Labour Party’s shift to the left is here to stay.
Significantly, the impact of the tabloid media seems to have been much diminished. Whatever you think of Corbyn, the campaign against him from certain papers (*cough* Daily Mail *cough* The Sun) was vicious. And yet Labour still won their largest share of the vote for many years. Hopefully, somewhere, an Australian billionaire is wearing an expression that is slightly more grumpy than usual.
As predicted, the Conservatives are now attempting to form a ‘minority government’ with the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who won 10 seats. This means a political party tries to form a government without an overall majority of seats (less than 326) in the House of Commons. To do this, they must pass a Queen’s Speech Bill, which is a list of policies and legislation they plan to implement during the next Parliament. Currently, the Conservatives have 318 seats. With the DUP’s 10, that would take them to 328 (impressive maths, I know). This would juuuuust be enough to get their program passed (if May can keep all the Tories plus the DUP on board) but the margins are obviously incredibly tight. Keeping the whole Conservative Party happy is a tricky task at the best of times, but with a weak Prime Minister and razor-thin margins, I don’t envy her the job. It’s also worth noting that if the government can’t get their Queen’s Speech Bill passed through Parliament, it would certainly be the end for May as Prime Minister.
Minority governments are not unprecedented in the UK. In fact, the last one looked very much like this one: in 1996, having seen his Parliamentary majority whittled away, John Major relied on the support of nine Unionist MPs to support him in Parliament (although it was the UUP rather than the DUP on that occasion). Minority governments do, however, have two common features: they are normally unstable and short-lived. Outside of an official coalition, no government can rely on the support of other parties for long. The mechanics are simply too complex and the possibilities for failure are too many. Lurking behind all of this is the Tory Party machine, which can smell a loser from a mile away and doesn’t usually hesitate to dispose of them in ruthless fashion. To summarise, Theresa May currently resembles the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, laying on the ground with all her limbs cut off insisting it’s just a flesh wound.
The wild-card factor in all of this is the DUP. One of the so far under-reported narratives of this election was the increasing polarisation of politics in Northern Ireland. The two more moderate parties, the UUP and the SDLP, were totally wiped out at the expense of Sinn Fein (primarily Catholic Republicans, supporting Irish reunification) and the DUP (primarily Protestant Unionists, supporting Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK). This could have significant implications for Brexit, as one of the key issues will be the border between the Republic of Ireland (an EU member) and Northern Ireland (part of the UK, soon to be an ex-EU member). All parties claim to want a ‘frictionless border’, as a ‘hard border’ springing up overnight could threaten the Northern Irish peace process. However, what a ‘frictionless border’ means in practice or how it would be managed is still utterly unclear. Sinn Fein appear to see the whole dilemma as an opportunity to pursue Irish unification.
Politically, the DUP are a right-wing party and so appear to be a natural fit for the Conservatives. They are pro-Brexit (although they prefer a ‘soft Brexit’) and have some very, ahem, ‘questionable’ social views (anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, some flirtations with teaching Creationism instead of evolution in schools). Allowing such a party to be the ‘Queen Maker’ keeping Theresa’s bum on the throne has raised a lot of eyebrows, to put it mildly. Religious and sectarian dynamics make Northern Irish politics pretty dysfunctional at the best of times – the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly still hasn’t been able to form a government after their last elections due to ongoing disagreements between the various parties. In the rest of the UK this dysfunction isn’t usually much of a concern, we mostly just leave them to get on with it but that’s not an option anymore.
The effect of all this on the Brexit negotiations is, I’m sure, currently the subject of much hilarity amongst the EU 27. On TV last night, the UK’s ongoing approach to Brexit was described as “a burning clown car”. Sounds about right. It’s not clear how a Prime Minister with no mandate or personal authority can negotiate anything with Europe, let alone something of this magnitude. It certainly seems like a pretty big nail in the coffin for the preferred ‘hard Brexit’ model. May ran her campaign with a promise to pull the UK out of the Single Market and the Customs Union, and she lost. Obviously, Brexit wasn’t the only thing on people’s minds when they voted, but it’s hard to argue that the UK has a clear desire to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ with Europe, so to speak. So far over the last two years, the British people have twice been asked what they want the UK’s relationship with the EU to be. Our answers have been a narrow referendum result and a hung Parliament. This is the democratic equivalent of being asked a relatively straightforward question and replying by screaming “BLLLAAAARRRGHHHHH”. In other words: we don’t really know what we want. Meanwhile, the two-year deadline clock on Article 50 continues to tick away.
Finally, I’d like to give a quick shout-out to the wonderful weirdness of British democracy. For all its numerous faults and flaws, there aren’t many countries in the world where the sitting Prime Minister has to deliver a sombre speech in front of someone dressed as Elmo and a guy called Lord Buckethead who literally had a giant bucket on his head. You can’t beat that. Also Paul Nuttall of the UKIPs had to resign after their vote share utterly collapsed, which as far as I’m concerned is definitive proof that God does love us after all.