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Hanging in the Balance
The UK's snap election backfires and adds more uncertainty to Brexit
By Dominic James Madar | NO. 25 JUNE 22, 2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street with her husband on their way to Buckingham Palace in London after Britain’s election on June 9 (XINHUA)

In the British general election held on June 8, no party was able to claim an outright victory by securing a majority of seats in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the UK parliament. Consequently, Britain has been left with its second hung parliament in the last three national elections.

Beforehand, it was widely expected that British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May would secure a larger number of seats for the Conservatives, strengthening her leadership position. Although May received over 42 percent of the popular vote, she lost 13 parliamentary seats, giving her 318 seats from a total of 650 and leaving her eight short of majority. She had commanded a majority, albeit a small one, before the election. Despite the Conservatives gaining more votes and seats than any other party, the result puts May in a relatively weak position as it was her decision to call this snap election.

In contrast, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn gained 30 seats to take his party's total to 262. The Labour vote also increased by 9.5 percent from the previous election in 2015 to reach a total vote share of 40 percent. Although Corbyn failed to win the election, his position has probably been strengthened by this result. Aside from the two main parties, both of which increased their vote share, the Liberal Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Scottish National Party and the Greens all witnessed a reduction.

Since May no longer commands a majority in parliament, she has chosen to rely on support from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has 10 seats, in order to form the government. At this stage, the exact relationship between the Conservatives and the DUP remains to be worked out, though May has already sought an agreement from them to remain as prime minister. For now at least, Britain will be governed by a minority Conservative government supported by the DUP.

Armed police stand guard near London Bridge in central London after a series of security incidents hit the city on the night of June 3, leaving at least one dead (XINHUA)

The background

Almost a year ago, then British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron resigned from his posts following the UK vote to leave the European Union (EU) on June 23, 2016. Cameron had campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, so when the British public voted (by a margin of 52 to 48 percent) to leave the union, he stepped down.

This resulted in a brief Conservative leadership contest to determine who would lead the UK, with handling Brexit negotiations with Europe being a key part of the job. Although May had voted to remain in the EU, her experience as home secretary from 2010 to 2016 and her reputation as a stable figure arguably helped her to win the contest, ahead of Amber Rudd and prominent Brexit campaigner Michael Gove.

Possibly due to a wide poll lead over Corbyn, May decided to call a snap general election in June. In the run-up to voting day, the polls suggested she would increase her majority over Labour. May had hoped to increase her governing majority. This would have also given her a far stronger personal mandate for leading the UK during the current unpredictable political climate. The Conservatives' inability to maintain, let alone strengthen, their lead reflects poorly upon her.

Policy positions

May had positioned her campaign around being a "strong and stable" option in supposed contrast to Corbyn, whom she criticized for not having a credible plan for the economy or for the Brexit negotiations. She also criticized Corbyn's economic position as relying on a "magic money tree," alluding to the apparent lack of revenue to fund Labour's spending proposals. She defended the record of the Conservatives in government in helping to both create jobs and steady the economy following the global financial crisis of 2008. The austerity measures imposed by the Cameron and her administrations were justified to bring the government's budget deficit and the national debt under control, she claimed. Although May argued that such government cuts had been necessary and successful, her chief opponent, Corbyn, disagreed.

He and others have accused the Conservative welfare cuts as being disproportionately harmful to some of Britain's most vulnerable people, such as pensioners and the disabled. If elected as prime minister, Corbyn promised to reverse the austerity policies imposed by the Conservatives by taking a more Keynesian approach to the economy via fiscal stimulation. He also pledged to raise corporation tax and increase the tax on Britain's wealthiest earners. He vowed to raise the minimum wage to 10 pounds ($12.78) per hour and to renationalize the railways and water services.

Corbyn's campaign slogan—"for the many, not the few"—centered on this theme of an unbalanced, economically unequal society. Hence, many of his economic policies aimed at redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor—a key tenet of any socialist politician.

In terms of foreign policy, the two main candidates also differed in their stances. While May emphasized the importance of leaving the EU even if no deal was reached—going so far as to cast herself as a tough negotiator—Corbyn suggested a more conciliatory approach to negotiations with the EU. Although both figures supported remaining in the EU before the referendum, both have also acknowledged the will of the public in voting for Brexit and therefore, committed to implementing the move in the optimum way possible.

Though the issue received little attention during the campaign, it is worth noting that May and Corbyn harbor very different positions in regard to the Middle East. While May supported the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the interventions in Libya and Syria, Corbyn has always voted against such measures on the ground that they will only worsen the situation. He also supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue.

Such positions, as well as his sharing platforms with Irish Republican Army members, have resulted in much of the British media and many Conservative politicians denouncing Corbyn as a terrorist sympathizer. However, the Labour leader has consistently denied such allegations and insists that dialogue and peace talks are the only way to deal with such problems, instead of using military force. This approach only served to underline the fundamental differences between the Labour and Conservative leaders, adding to the vast gap between their ideas and policies on the economy.

Looking ahead

In a bizarre state of events, it is the runner-up Corbyn, who appears to have improved his standing in the election, rather than May. Despite winning two Labour leadership contests by a landslide, Corbyn has faced much criticism from the more centrist wing of his party, including well-known figures such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair. It was expected by many that Corbyn would face an "electoral wipeout," so his strong campaign and election showing, in which he gained seats and a significant improvement in vote share, have served to enhance his position as leader of the opposition.

May reportedly told Conservative MPs at a meeting that "I got us in this mess, I'll get us out." The election result, however, could damage her reputation. Her Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, have already resigned from their positions amid the turmoil engulfing May.

May did not have to call an election—yet she did so in an attempt to shore up her power base for the upcoming Brexit negotiations and to give her a personal mandate to lead the UK. Since the British electorate did not give her the mandate she sought, she will probably have to rely on support from the DUP to pass legislation in parliament. At a time of global instability and questions surrounding the Brexit negotiations, this election result has only added to the uncertainties.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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