May fights for survival, faces a fractious parliament

Dhaka,  Sat,  22 July 2017
Published : 13 Jun 2017, 19:36:14
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May fights for survival, faces a fractious parliament

Muhammad Zamir
British Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Theresa May is facing strong criticism from different sections of her party leadership for her decision to hold an extraordinarily early general election - about three years ahead of the scheduled deadline of 2020 - and lose majority in Parliament. The avowed purpose of the gambit of a snap election was to win a very big parliamentary majority and thus strengthen her position to sit down with the European leadership and discuss with them the intricate and complex facets related to the British decision to exit from the European Union, also popularly known as Brexit. The final results have laid bare several inconsistencies that marked her party's efforts during the election campaign and ended up with the party obtaining lesser number of seats in Parliament than that required (326) for forming a government on their own.

May ended up having to seek the support of North Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and their 10 seats to cross the bar that was stopping her from forming a government on her own. This has however compounded the situation somewhat as the DUP backs the UK leaving the EU, but on the condition that its border with EU member, the Republic of Ireland, remains "frictionless''. Tory Chief Whip Gavin Williamson met DUP chiefs in Belfast to work out the arrangements. The British media has also reported that the Tories do not expect a full coalition, but an agreement which sees the smaller party support the larger one in key votes such as on the Budget. BBC has reported that this deal would see the DUP promise to back the government in votes of no confidence and on Budget issues. In return, the government would support or fund some of the DUP's policies. These deals will consequently tend to be a long way short of a formal coalition.

The Scottish National Party (SNP)'s losses of 21 seats included some high-profile politicians, like former leader Alex Salmond. While losses were expected, given the SNP's near complete dominance in Scotland in the last general election, the scale of the loss, particularly to the Conservatives, is leading to a reassessment of the demand for another independence referendum, widely seen as the cause of this shift in Scottish voters' preferences.

The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, the main opposition party, contrary to Theresa May's expectations, ended up with 262 seats, adding 30 more seats through this election. This party received 12.82 million votes, almost 40.1 per cent of the votes cast, compared to the Conservative Party's 42.4 per cent (which led them to winning 318 seats). British media later revealed that Corbyn was just 2,227 votes away from having the chance to become the Prime Minister after this General Election. Apparently, if the Labour leader had won seven seats narrowly taken by the Conservatives, he would have had the opportunity to propose the formation of a "progressive alliance" with the help of other smaller political parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party. Interestingly, it has been pointed out that had the Conservatives seized four seats from the Labour party in Dudley North, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Crew-Nantwich and Canterbury then May might have been able to form a government without support from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Analysts have, since the election, pointed out that four factors appear to have worked strongly against Theresa May: (a) the sensitivity created by the terrorist attacks carried out in the last three months - near the Westminster Bridge in London, in Manchester and near the London Bridge - and the belief that such attacks had been made possible due to her austerity drive during her stint as Home Secretary that led to the reduction of the police and law enforcement force by nearly 20,000, (b) her suggestion that she was going to reduce the government's contribution towards social welfare, (c) the higher presence of younger voters this time round  upset with her government's proposals about providing support in the education sector and (d) her wrong assumption that the opposition Labour party had grown even weaker since the last election.

The uncertainty created by this election within the British paradigm has drawn the attention of analysts and observers not only in Europe but also elsewhere - the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, Russia and Japan. In Bangladesh, we followed the electoral process with interest, particularly with regard to the re-election prospects of three Labour MPs -Tulip Siddiq, Rupa Huq and Rowshan Ara - all ladies of Bangladeshi origin. All of them were re-elected with bigger majorities than their previous electoral performance.

It is clear that May, after her failed election gamble, is not only fighting for her survival but also facing an adverse situation - her authority has been generally undermined and Britain has plunged into a major political crisis days before the start of talks on  June 19 pertaining to Brexit - the same day as the formal reopening of Parliament. The British Pound has tumbled against the US Dollar and the Euro. 

British tabloid 'Sun'  has pointed out that senior members of the Conservative party (Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Donald Davis) were thinking of removing May from the leadership but, for the moment, had decided on waiting for at least six months because they feared that a leadership contest could propel Labour leader Corbyn into power. But Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has dismissed reports of a Tory party leadership bid as "tripe".

One element is, however, very clear. Britain is expected to have a very fractious parliament. This has led the 'The Times' to comment that "May stares into the abyss". It has also added that Britain was "effectively leaderless" and the "country all but ungovernable".

Fabian Zuleeg, an analyst from Brussels, has made some significant observations.  He has noted that "Brexit seems to have played a relatively minor role when it came to the results of this election, despite all parties putting forward very different stances and propositions. While Theresa May justified an early election by demanding a mandate for her Brexit negotiations, voters seem to have predominantly looked at other issues when deciding who to vote for - non-EU migration, social justice and the constitutional future of Scotland".

It is clear that the majority of British voters assume that Brexit will happen, not least because both the major parties have endorsed the result of the referendum on the issue. However, for the majority of UK voters, Brexit, right now does not appear to be at the top of the list of their concerns. In most areas of Britain, more day-to-day issues related to jobs and society are clearly playing a greater role. However, there can be no denying the fact that this election will determine what shape the Brexit negotiations will take and, in particular, what compromises the UK might be willing to make.

It may be recalled that a common view before the election was that Theresa May, if she received a decisive mandate from the electorate, would be able to push her party towards a compromise position, and sideline the hardline Brexiters in the party. It was believed that this would enable her to avoid going over the cliff edge and ending up with no acceptable deal at all - a situation that could have enormous economic consequences.

However, the evolving circumstances now appear to have modulated the paradigm. May, at present, is in a weaker position. She also knows that a significant move away from the hard Brexit scenario would increase internal party opposition, lead to renewed pressure from UKIP and be slated by the Eurosceptic tabloids.

Theresa May will have to be a strong, principled leader, with a willingness to sacrifice her own political capital, to push through an acceptable deal. Remainers within and outside her own party, as well as business interests, will in the meantime definitely exert more pressure on her to come to a deal in the Article 50 negotiations, ensuring that the "no deal" cliff edge is avoided at this stage.

This would entail compromises on EU citizen rights, the role of the European Court and the legacy payment, as well as accepting the status quo in any transition arrangements. This will be hard to sell to the Brexiters in her own party. In addition, the reliance of the Tories on the Unionist vote in Northern Ireland might further complicate finding a workable compromise with respect to the Northern Ireland border, where the DUP position could create conflict with the Republic of Ireland. So even for this initial step, uncertainty prevails.

Within this equation May will also have to take into cognizance different views expressed by Corbyn with regard to Brexit. Speaking on the BBC, Corbyn has expressed the belief that the Great Repeal Bill - the Conservative plan to copy across all EU laws into UK law - would now become "history". On Brexit, Corbyn noted that he wanted "tariff-free access to the European market". He also wants to maintain membership of key European agencies, as well as European Convention on Human Rights and European Court of Human Rights.

It is clear that the election has changed the UK dynamics but not in the way Theresa May wanted. Instead of creating a stronger leadership, able to negotiate with the EU, there is now significant uncertainty. In the meantime, the two-year clock will continue to tick on.  At the same time the new weakened UK government will have to define its negotiating position rather quickly and come to the table far more willing to compromise than has been the case for the past 11 months.

It would be worthwhile to note here that minority governments of this kind have not been uncommon in Britain. John Major survived without a majority in the dying days of his Tory administration in the mid-1990s. Similarly, Labour's Harold Wilson and James Callaghan governed with minorities for much of the 1970s.

However, it must also be remembered that governments of this type can be quite constrained in what they can do and normally try to pass as little legislation as possible to avoid defeat (a huge challenge given the complexity of the Brexit negotiations). They can also be unstable and short-lived; if the understanding between the parties breaks down, fresh elections have to be called.

The writer, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised 

in foreign affairs, right to information 

and good governance.

muhammadzamir0@gmail.com

 
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