“Britain should brace itself for more upheaval in the coming months.”
Sotirios Zartaloudis writes for Canada’s The Globe and Mail:
When British Prime Minister Theresa May (pictured) called a snap election in April, she did so from a position of strength. Opinion polls were giving her Conservative Party a 20% lead with all surveys portraying her as the most trusted leader, in sharp contrast to her main rival, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. Her plan was to seize the opportunity of this favorable public opinion to crush the opposition and expand her slim majority in Parliament.
But the election results derailed these plans spectacularly. The Conservative Party achieved a Pyrrhic victory by losing seats and the majority in the House of Commons. Adding insult to injury, the often-ridiculed Corbyn managed to lead a resurgence of the Labour Party, with a gain of 29 seats. May has managed already to form a coalition government with the ultra-conservative Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, but this is a far cry from expectations of a Tory landslide and a 100-plus majority.
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These elections mark a personal humiliation for May, who ran a personalized campaign as a “strong and stable” leader asking British voters to give her a clear mandate for a hard Brexit. Her ruinous campaign included absence from the leaders’ TV debate; political gaffes in her manifesto about social care for pensioners, a core voter group for her party; and a lack of any clearly defined agenda or goals for the next government.
Now May is without her mandate to govern Britain and lead the Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Her government will be weakened both internally and externally. As with all coalition governments, reaching consensus on any decision will be a challenge, and she will have to reconcile two opposing groups within her party: a libertarian/globalist free-trade camp which seeks to have economic relations with the EU and a nationalist camp which prioritizes control of borders and reduction of immigration, irrespective of the resulting negative economic impact.
Brexit cannot satisfy both camps. Either Britain has to comply with key EU single-market principles, including free movement of people, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and EU directives, or the UK will become a pariah of international trade. This is going to be a monumental if not impossible task for May, defining her strategic dead end.
EU governments and institutions will know that Theresa May is a lame duck. That environment will become even more difficult for Prime Minister if Chancellor Angela Merkel wins the German elections, as the polls currently predict), and as the erratic Donald Trump reinforces international isolation. The EU has no reason to help May’s Euroskeptic government; rather, they can use Britain as an example of nationalism going wrong.
On top of this unfavourable political climate, the Brexit economic kerfuffle is already beginning to bite. The UK is the worst performer in the EU in terms of growth and is dealing with a falling pound, increasing inflation, and one of the highest trade deficits the country has ever recorded. In simple terms, Britain lives beyond its means, and a potential break from the EU single market will be the final nail in the coffin of a dysfunctional political economy based on conspicuous consumption, high debts, and high inequality and poverty. Britain should brace itself for more upheaval in the coming months.
The electoral humiliation of Theresa May and the strategic dead end she faces with Brexit seem to be only the beginning of her woes. But the Tory party has only itself to blame: they should have known from European history that nativism, nationalism, and populism have a short shelf life – just as, seemingly, May and her government do.
Sotirios Zartaloudis is Lecturer in Politics in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham