May's election gamble backfires badly

from The Washington Post

An election called to strengthen Britain's government as it prepares to negotiate its departure from the European Union has instead weakened it so much that it will be hard-pressed simply to remain in office.

Prime Minister Theresa May hoped to increase the Conservative Party's majority to 100 seats or more, giving her a mandate for her relatively hard-line Brexit strategy of favoring restrictions on immigration over full membership in the EU's single market. Instead, the Conservatives lost their majority and now must depend on a small, sectarian Northern Ireland party to hold on to power. May will apparently keep the prime minister's job for now, but her ability to effectively manage what was already an enormously difficult economic and political transition has probably been crippled.

As the British media mercilessly pointed out, May, who was ahead by 20 points in polls when she called the election in April, conducted a terrible campaign, while Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left leader of the Labour Party, ran a very good one. May was wooden on the stump, flubbed interviews and ducked debates; she appeared to be anything but the "strong and stable" leader of her campaign slogan.

Corbyn held mass rallies in the style of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump at which he offered populist promises, including the abolition of university tuition and billions in new funds for the state health service. He may have gotten an unwitting 11th-hour boost from Trump, who responded to a terrorist attack in London by launching a Twitter assault on the city's popular Labour Party mayor.

Labour's 30-seat surge came partly from London and other places where support for the EU exit in last year's referendum was thin. But the most remarkable aspect of the vote was the 68-year-old Corbyn's attraction of young voters. An exit poll showed that turnout among people under 35 rose by 12 percent compared with that of the last general election, and that nearly two-thirds of those voters chose Labour.

Though that might suggest a millennial fascination with Marxism, the exit poll indicated that the top concern of young voters was also the EU withdrawal, which they strongly oppose. Though Labour nominally supports Brexit, May's tough positioning on the issue — she insistently repeated that "no deal" with Europe was better than "a bad deal" — seems to have driven away those favoring a more conciliatory line.

At best, May may be moved to rethink her Brexit strategy. But she could be constrained more than ever by Conservative hard-liners who favor a hard break with Europe. Even before the election, her government appeared poorly prepared for negotiations that are supposed to begin on June 19; now it will be even harder to stake out positions on troublesome issues, such as the tens of billions in exit payments that Brussels is demanding.

One outcome of the election may make British politics slightly more stable: The far-right U.K. Independence Party was nearly extinguished, while the Scottish National Party, which had begun agitating for a new referendum on independence, lost a third of its seats. In all, though, the vote left Britain badly divided and its government virtually dysfunctional. In that respect, Britain and the United States now share an unfortunate resemblance.

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