Britain Delivers Another Surprising Vote, which shouldn’t really Surprise Anyone

Theresa May speaks at her first Prime Minister’s Questions system last year. She may not get another one. UK Parliament Photo

When a UK general election comes around, you can normally expect me to be blogging about it. British politics is, in certain ways, far more compelling than its American counterpart. The scale is smaller, but it feels so darn Shakespearean, I cannot help but be fascinated. However, when Prime Minister Theresa May (only the second female in British history to hold that position) called for an early election a few weeks back, I let the news pass me by for the most part.

There were three reasons for this. First, I have been dealing with illness for almost the entirely of this year that has rendered me only partially functional. Second, the constant stream of stories related to the Trump administration and the presidential election in France grabbed more of my attention, rightly or wrongly. Third, none of the party leaders in this British election inspire anything like confidence or even grudging admiration in me. I long for the bad old days of the Blair/Brown feud, coalition politics, and the like. Things were so much more fun back then, even if they were falling to pieces.

Nevertheless, this British election was important. Ever since the UK voted to leave the European Union last year, there has been significant disagreement over how that process should take place. The party that leads the country going forward will have enormous influence over that transition, which is surely important not only for British citizens, but also Europeans in general. Second, the rise in terrorist actions in the UK is a major source of concern, and the country needs a government that will be effective in countering the hydra-like threat of ISIS and all its ilk. Third, there is the eternal question of whether the government should spend more on social programs, as favored by the liberal parties, or continue on with austerity.

The main players in this drama were the previously mentioned Mrs. May, a long-time Conservative “frontbencher” who gained the top job last year when her predecessor David Cameron, a far superior politician in my opinion, campaigned for the UK to stay in the EU only to see his side lose the national referendum. Here I must note that UK law stipulates that there must be a general election at least once every five years. However, the prime minister may call for an election at any time. PM May chose to call one only two years after the previous election, no doubt hoping that her party could gain more seats in parliament and secure a further public mandate going into the Brexit negotiations. It would also give her a chance to consolidate power in her own right.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a campaign event this year. Photo by Sophie Brown

May is the leader of the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories. The second largest party is the Labour Party, which has been led since the last election by Jeremy Corbyn. It is important to note that Corbyn is very unpopular within his own party and despised by many in the press. He is a leftist’s leftist who spent most of his parliamentary career annoying everyone else and then managed to gain a lot of grassroots support from union workers and young people to beat out his rather uncompelling opponents in the 2015 Labour Leadership Election. He is sort of like a combination of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and I do not exaggerate much when I say that several prominent figures within the Labour Party looked upon his elevation as if it were the end of the world as they know it. Many of those brave souls who were willing to join Corbyn’s shadow cabinet found themselves treated poorly, ignored, sacked, etc. There was a push at one point to unseat him, but Corbyn held off the coup.

Therefore, Labour limped into this year’s election with a leader who is not particularly beloved on a national level. If one concludes that the Brexit vote last year spoke to a general conservative impulse in the country, then one would expect that the Tories could easily dispatch their more liberal opponents at the polls. Unfortunately, PM May found her own ways to make the public unhappy: she embraced Donald Trump and presided over an increase in terrorist activity that some blamed on a lack of police funding. Combined with some other policy missteps that gained her plenty of negative press coverage, these factors made the election race much closer than was anticipated at the outset. Even so, the polls all suggested that the Conservatives would win the most votes, even as the margin between them and their opponents seemed to narrow toward the end.

So then we arrived at May 8 (or 8 May), the day of the vote. At 10:00 p.m. BST, the exit poll data was released, and it showed that PM May’s gamble had not paid off: not only had her party failed to gain seats, but they had actually lost seats to both Labour and the smaller Liberal Democrat Party. As I sit here watching the results, it is close enough that there is no way to predict whether the Conservatives will barely eke out a majority or will merely be the largest party in a hung parliament. (A “hung parliament” is where no single party holds a majority of the seats.) If the parliament is hung, which currently seems to be the most likely scenario, it then becomes a question of who can persuade enough of the smaller political parties to form a governing coalition. If the Conservatives fall within 10-15 seats of a majority, they may be able to join up with the Liberal Democrats again, as they did in 2010. Unfortunately for them, the Lib Dems are insisting they will never repeat what they felt was an absolute coalition nightmare. That leaves few options.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May was the first major foreign leader to travel to Washington, D.C. and meet with President Trump. Pictures like this did not make her popular back home. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

However, if the exit poll has  overestimated the amount of seats that the Conservatives won and they are really more like 20-30 short of a majority, then the Labour Party will be much better placed to form a coalition with its like-minded liberal brethren, the Scottish National Party. That may require them to promise the Scots that they can hold another referendum on leaving the UK, which many in Scotland are anxious for as they almost to a man (and woman) opposed the Brexit vote. Most people in Scotland would like to remain in the EU, and they will need to gain their independence in order to do so. The least likely possibility is that one of these parties – probably the Conservatives – will gain permission from the queen to form a minority government. Yes, the queen technically has a say in all of this. You may think that’s crazy, but then again, Donald Trump is president of the United States.

Whatever happens, it seems unlikely that Theresa May will be able to stay on for another five years as prime minister. If her party does not win a majority, she will probably be gone by the end of the week. If they simply have a smaller majority, I still think she will be so weakened by the failure of this decision that she will struggle to hold off rivals like the charismatic and/or oafish Boris Johnson, who everyone knows sees the top job as his destiny.

Jeremy Corbyn can count this election as a huge success. Many people were predicting that his party would be wiped out. On the contrary, they have actually gained seats and will likely end up with a better result than either of the past two general elections. Therefore, the unhappiest people of all tonight will likely be those within the Labour Party who were dearly hoping for Corbyn to hang himself. They will be stuck with him for a long time to come.

I, for one, am not at all surprised by this turn of events. For as much as people liked to decry former PM David Cameron as a showman with no real opinions, a posh aristocrat, an inauthentic conservative, etc., the man knew how to win general elections. He brought the Conservative Party back to power. He was the first leader of his party to win a majority since John Major back in 1992. British voters do not choose a prime minister: they simply vote for their individual members of parliament. However, they often do so with the potential prime ministers in mind, and there is no question that the policies and vision of the leader affect how average citizens view the entire party. While there were few people who really loved David Cameron, there were many voters who saw him as dependable enough to do the job. There does not seem to be the same level of confidence in Theresa May.

Whenever you see a party’s lead in the polls start to shrink as the election gets closer, it usually indicates a groundswell of momentum that will be even bigger in the voting booth. This was true with Brexit. It was also true with Donald Trump. As was the case in those two elections, the voters have seemingly ignored the negative media coverage given to a particular candidate or issue. Corbyn may have been nobody’s darling in the press, but he made more of a connection with average voters. Perhaps they saw him as more authentic. Perhaps this was a vote in retaliation against Brexit, which was largely pushed by the Conservatives. Perhaps the terrorist attack just a few days before the election affected voters’ opinions. Whatever the case, I am not surprised that the Conservatives failed to build on the majority they won in 2015, which was unexpected enough at that time.

But who are all these idiots anyway, and what are they doing in parliament? British politics used to be fun!