May's Brexit election that wasn't
Britain’s General Election was not about Brexit and it leaves Brexit – and Britain’s political system – in flux. It’s trite to say it, but Britain’s 2017 general election will go down in British history as one of its most unexpected and unpredictable.
Called by Theresa May for a variety of opportunistic reasons, it was meant to deliver her a stomping majority in the House of Commons, a crippled Labour opposition, a clear mandate to pursue her definition of a ‘hard Brexit’ and her own socially conservative domestic agenda, and more time to manage Brexit by shifting the next General Election from 2020 to 2022.
Instead she got a minority government, a rejuvenated Labour party, an unclear mandate, a collapse of her own authority, and the prospect of another general election sometime soon. It has left Britain facing a period of profound uncertainty.
As always, a myriad of factors caused this mess. The overall result of 317 seats for the Conservatives compared to a total of 333 for all other parties (with Labour on 262) left them the largest party, but just short of the 326 seats needed to have a majority in the House of Commons. Thanks to factors such as Sinn Féin MPs not taking their seats and the quirks of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, 50 votes in 4 constituencies would have given May a majority.
In a way that’s a reminder of how well she and the Conservative party did with their 42.3% share of the vote being a 5.5% increase on their 2015 result. This was the highest percentage they had secured since Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 general election victory.
Brexit Referendum Part Deux?
The support May and the Conservatives secured does little, however, to make up for their overall mistakes, one of which was that she thought the election could be fought over Brexit. That might seem logical in light of last year’s referendum and the triggering of Article 50 in March.
But May, and the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Scottish National Party who also put Brexit at the front of their campaigns, soon found they had partly misunderstood both the electorate and the 2016 referendum. Instead of debating Brexit, the British people wanted to talk about the staples of any election campaign in recent memory: health, poverty, wages, education, security, welfare and so forth.
This is hardly surprising when we look back to the EU referendum. David Cameron called the vote because, as he put it, ‘It is time to settle this European question in British politics.’ In doing so he set himself an impossible task and must shoulder his share of the blame for the uncertainties that vote has unleashed.
As I asked in a January 2015 article for International Affairs, ‘To be or not to be in Europe: is that the question?’ The short answer is ‘no’, because the question of Europe in British politics is multifaceted, connects to so much in British life, and as so often with referendums people did not necessarily answer the question asked on the ballot paper.
Putting Brexit at the front of her campaign, but then refusing to discuss it left May vulnerable to attack
Sure enough that is what happened when the British people voted. Some did indeed vote to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, to leave the Single Market and end all freedom of movement with the rest of the EU. Of the leading issues in the campaign, immigration was clearly first among equals. In the rush to explain the Leave vote we should not forget that some Remain voters also voted to remain part of the political project of European integration.
Yet the vote also became a chance to kick the elite, to reject a political system that seemed distant and a UK economic model that had seen too many sidelined and ignored.
Many people felt little connection to the EU, but that was never going to be enough and any Leave vote was always going to need to draw on domestic matters. The official Leave campaign’s notorious claim that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU and that this instead should be spent on the NHS very effectively tapped into both Euroscepticism and domestic anger about the state of UK public services.
Should the outcome of the 2017 general election have therefore come as a surprise? British voters were faced with a party that had been in power for seven years and whose austerity policies had stunted the living standards of many.
Theresa May soon came across as anything but ‘strong and stable’, the slogan she robotically repeated ad nauseam at the start of the campaign. This became glaringly obvious when mid-campaign she committed the biggest U-turn seen by a party in any modern UK general election when she reversed a key but ill-thought out manifesto commitment on paying for the care of the elderly. May’s refusal to even admit to the U-turn only added to frustrations.
The Conservatives’ campaign wasn’t helped by May lacking much by way of public emotion or empathy; a mistake the Remain campaign had also made in the referendum when it failed to make any positive emotional case for the EU.
Putting Brexit at the front of her campaign, but then refusing to discuss it also left May vulnerable to attack. Refusing to debate the issue, or indeed debate much at all in a public setting and avoiding any direct debates with her opponents, left May and the Conservative party looking weak, unwilling to engage and fuelled by hubris. In return large sections of the British public began to show they were in no mood to be taken for granted.
Whether by accident or design, by putting the economy and welfare first and Brexit second Jeremy Corbyn and Labour tapped into public sentiments May and the Conservatives either couldn’t reach or made no effort to.
Corbyn and Labour’s campaign have been heralded for successfully attracting large numbers of young voters, something the Conservative party appeared to have given up on. Energised by the referendum result, Corbyn became the preferred destination for their support.
Yet Labour also succeeded in attracting large chunks of UKIP and older voters, voters May had been banking on and pollsters had been projecting would go her way as a result of Brexit and policies on immigration.
Instead it was Labour that seemed to appeal to their concerns. Corbyn’s own Euroscepticism, along with Labour’s acceptance of Brexit and vague commitments to ending freedom of movement allowed Labour to broadly align themselves with the Conservatives and neutralise any Brexit-advantage May hoped to win.
It puts Labour in a dilemma. Labour’s younger voters were largely in favour of remaining in the EU, and the party also picked up large swathes of voters in Remain voting areas such as London. These voters might have put Brexit aside in siding with Labour for domestic matters, but large numbers of them could turn on Labour if it appears to betray them over Brexit.
Nor can the Conservatives expect to find things easy. Pro-European Conservative MPs, buoyed by an influx of pro-EU Conservative MPs from Scotland, now have the chance to shift the party’s position away from the hard Brexit line May had been pursuing.
As Leave campaigners point out, both the Conservatives and Labour campaigned on manifesto commitments to implementing Brexit. When MPs such as those from the DUP are included, it means 85% of MPs were elected on seeing Brexit happen.
It means that if some MPs go too soft on Brexit or too hard then both parties risk the sort of blowback that May and the Conservatives faced over their disastrous U-turn on care for the elderly.
Who might gain from this dilemma? While this election saw UKIP, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Green party all take a knocking, they wait in the wings. They remain hopeful that Brexit might yet win them back votes.
A Prime Minister on Political Death Row?
How long then can May’s government survive? Losing the majority she inherited from David Cameron has left May a ‘dead woman walking’. But with no immediate obvious replacement from within the Conservative party she is stuck on political death row in 10 Downing Street.
Immediately after the election she was forced to lose her two closest advisers, both widely blamed for the disastrous campaign. Demands for their departure also reflected anger that had been building within the Conservative party, including amongst ministers, at their and May’s arrogant, high-handed and controlling approach to running government.
Such an approach might have worked when May was in charge of the Home Office, a department notorious for problems and high-profile mistakes. As prime minister, however, it has been a recipe for building resentment and policy mistakes such as the disastrous policy on paying for the care of the elderly that May was forced to perform a U-turn on mid-campaign.
Her handling of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the week after the elections, only added to doubts about her future. While prime ministers should not be solely judged on how emotional they are, May’s failure to meet with survivors on her first visit to the tower left many wondering if she had learnt anything from an election campaign where one of her biggest weaknesses was an apparent disdain for meeting ordinary people.
The result is that May can appear unfit to run a government and country where compromise and consensus building will be crucial. Rumours abound that negotiations to secure the support of Northern Ireland’s ten Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs were strained by May’s – and some other Conservative cabinet ministers’ – arrogance and indifference to compromise in negotiations.
Despite repeated attempts and never-ending debates, in its almost 45 years of EU membership Britain has managed to build only one new large airport runway and one high-speed railway line
This was despite the fact that without the DUP’s support the government would not last long at all. It also did not bode well for a government about to embark on the toughest and most comprehensive negotiations the UK has undertaken in peacetime.
A Prime Minister once lauded for not being one for the bars of Westminster and instead for rising above the cliquey politics of ‘Cameronites’ or ‘Blairites’, now finds herself without a core group of supporters.
This then is a government set to struggle to get domestic and Brexit legislation through parliament to say nothing of the challenge to reach agreement with other power centres such as the Scottish Government and the City of London. It was hardly surprising then that the Queen’s Speech was bereft of much that the Conservative party had set out in its election manifesto.
Britain, it should be remembered, can be a country where big projects and ideas can run into massive political and administrative obstacles. Despite repeated attempts and never-ending debates, in its almost 45 years of EU membership Britain has managed to build only one new large airport runway and one high-speed railway line.
The prospect of another election then is very real, despite a desire by all – and not least by sections of a weary British public – to avoid one. But Labour sense they might make a breakthrough and so are likely to back the necessary parliamentary votes needed to call an election.
It means calculations about domestic politics now dominate proceedings, not least those surrounding internal party politics, leaders strengths and weaknesses, or over the situation in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Brexit risks becoming for some an irritating background factor they would rather ignore.
Brexit on Political Death Row?
Where then does this leave Brexit? For the time being, the UK’s government remains committed to the Brexit that May set out in a speech in January 2017. Her much derided statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was actually a clear statement of her intent: the UK would leave the EU with no ifs or buts about it.
All that was to exist following the exit was a free trade agreement and practical but limited arrangements in areas such as security and data sharing. European Economic Area membership or some sort of ‘soft Brexit’ was not on the table, with the exception of some limited areas where it could be used as part of a short transition deal.
While this remains formal government policy, parliamentary arithmetic mean debates and decisions about Brexit can no longer be confined to the Conservative party. Labour’s position and that of other opposition parties, the behaviour of the House of Lords where no party has held a majority since 1999, and the positions of such other power centres as the Scottish Parliament (albeit one still dominated by an SNP left chastened by heavy defeats in the 2017 election), now matter far more than they did before 9 June.
It means parliament – and more specifically the House of Commons – is confronted with the task of trying to decipher what it was the British people voted for in a referendum which as already noted was not entirely about Britain’s membership of the EU. It’s not a position relished by it or any of the parties.
Let us not forget that the referendum was primarily called by David Cameron to settle tensions within the Conservative party, tensions also found in other parties including Labour. So too was the general election called by May to secure a mandate for her interpretation of what the British people had voted for in June 2016 and so ensure parliament – and some of her more pro-European backbenchers – could not change or challenge this.
But the British people have not spoken clearly on the matter and British politicians remain paralysed over what to do about it. Such is the level of confusion and inability amongst the political elite to face the choices ahead that the Centre for European Reform recently called on the rest of the EU to help Britain along by confronting its politicians and public with the Brexit choices they refuse to face.
Brexit Britain’s Constitutional Dilemmas
Such a situation can seem absurd in so many ways to the rest of Europe. The despair and angst some in the UK express at a ‘hung parliament’ can sound bizarre when across Europe and large swathes of the democratic world a hung parliament is perfectly normal. But here we hit on a problem underlying the whole situation: Britain’s tradition of majoritarian politics.
Deeply embedded in Britain’s political psyche is an obsession with one party winning a majority in the House of Commons, almost always on a minority of the vote thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system. The domination of politics and government that emerges does not mean the governing party ignores parliament and goes about governing without any checks on its powers. Consultation and dialogue is frequent, albeit often hidden from view. Constitutional change also means such political actors as devolved parliaments, the Supreme Court, and the Mayor of London have to be taken into account.
It does, however, mean the system struggles when faced with the need for public consensus and united leadership. Despite the 2010-2015 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the idea of coalition remains a difficult one. Most Britons have never heard of such arrangements as Germany’s grand coalitions and would struggle to believe they really happen, let alone work effectively.
The election result means May’s approach of defining Brexit according to what she wanted has been checked, but it is not checkmate
Brexit might have led to repeated calls for some form of unified way forward. Even the leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove, speaking the morning after the EU referendum, called for ‘representatives from every part of the UK, every community, every religion and different political traditions’ to be involved in shaping Brexit. More recent ideas include a cross-party commission on Brexit, something the Archbishop of Canterbury recently backed.
Any such consensus looks unlikely in a system geared to public confrontation, especially when the Conservatives and Labour have abandoned the middle ground of British politics in favour of extremes on the right and left.
That does not mean consensus building might not happen. The election result means May’s approach of defining Brexit according to what she wanted has been checked, but it is not checkmate. Reversing Brexit remains a difficult and unlikely outcome.
This is not to say that the idea of a U-turn on Brexit should be forgotten about. The volatile state of British, European and Western politics means we can’t dismiss such a thing happening. But were it to happen it would require either a referendum or another general election which sees the election of a government (single party or coalition) with a clear mandate to reverse – or at least try to reverse – Article 50.
What the rest of the EU now faces is the possibility of more flexibility by the UK in the three sets of UK-EU Brexit negotiations: over the UK’s exit, a transition, and the new UK-EU relationship. As things stand the most likely outcome might be a soft transition to a hard Brexit. How long that will take, however, remains very unclear.
What also remains unclear is something that in Britain remains one of the most overlooked sides to Brexit and the negotiations: securing the agreement of the other 27 EU member states and EU institutions. Britain’s politicians and public have struggled to debate what they want Brexit to mean. They have paid next to no attention to what the rest of the EU might agree to.
Tim Oliver is an Associate at LSE IDEAS, the LSE’s foreign policy think tank, and Research Director of Brexit Analytics. In 2017-2018 he will be a Jean Monnet Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence.