Elections and Parties

On April 19, 2017, Theresa May’s government dissolved parliament and called for new elections for the House of Commons on June 8.

In theory, she should not have been able to do that. The coalition government elected in 2010 had passed a law that set fixed five year terms for the Commons unless a super-majority of two thirds of the MPs agreed to hold an early one. However, all of the parties agreed, and she won 522 of the 535 votes cast making the election possible.

At first, it seemed like a good bet on her part. She had hopes to increase her Conservatives’ narrow 17 seat majority to help bolster her hand in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Early polls had the Tories ahead by as many as 20 points. No one was surprised by those early signs of a rout. All the opposition parties were in disarray for one reason or another. Thus, as unpopular as she was, May’s Tories seemed certain to win.

But, as election day neared, the polls got tighter. Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, all of a sudden turned into an effective campaigner who made many people think of his American left-wing populist contemporary, Bernie Sanders. Still, most observers expected May’s Tories to win with about the same number of seats that they had won in 2015, thus making the election seem like a waste of time and energy.

In fact, as the table below suggests, the election turned into a disaster for May and provided the rather colorless Corbyn with a boost.

PartyVotes (%)Seats
Scottish Nationalists3.035
Liberal Democrats7.412
Democratic Unionists (Northern Ireland)0.910

Instead of increasing their number of seats, the Conservatives fell eight short of 325 they would need for a majority despite the fact that their share of the vote actually rose.

The real winner was Labour which became a credible alternative barely two years after suffering one of its worst defeats.

More importantly, May faced a quandary. There was no question that a Tory would become prime minister. But would it be May who suffered a terrible personal defeat in the election? Who would the Conservatives govern with?

Britain has never had a grand coalition government. and there was no chance that May would turn to Corbyn to give that option a try. The LibDems made it clear that they were not interested in recreating the coalition government of 2010-2015, membership in which almost killed their party.

After days of haggling, the more right wing of the two Protestant parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP, agreed to support May’s government at least for the time being.

Almost as soon as the votes were counted and the minority government was in place, pundits started speculating on how long May would last. Few thought she stands a chance of surviving for the full five-year term which should not end until 2022.

Public Policy

British public policy remains fixated on Brexit, which supposedly has to take place by March 2019.

As of October 2017, May’s government had made little progress in its negotiations with the EU. During that month, she made a flurry of trips to Brussels, but all one can say is that the two sides agreed to keep talking.

A host of issues remain on the table, including future trade relations, the rights of immigrants from both sides after the British leave, and the need to rewrite hundreds of laws and regulations that will be rendered obsolete when the UK finally leaves.

Some politicians–including former Prime Minister Tony Blair–have talked about finding a way of undoing the referendum and staying in the EU, but there is little or no chance of that happening under May who is committed to taking Britain out. The government’s positions is also unlikely to change if May is voted out and is replaced by Foreign Minister Boris Johnson or one of the other leading Tories, all of whom are more hostile to the EU than she is.