UK: Casino Politics

Theresa May & Jeremy Corbin

In a triumph of cautious optimism over alarmist gloom, UK voters delivered Prime Minister Theresa May a comeuppance of sorts, depriving her of an outright majority in parliament and refusing to buy into Tory visions of strong and stable leadership – and post-Brexit sunny uplands.

Equally surprising, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn held his own, managing to coast his party to an additional 29 seats, and proving his critics wrong: progressive politics is alive and well in Britain. Dismissed as an out-of-touch Marxist, Mr Corbyn during the campaign did not once lose his nerve or cool and stayed doggedly on topic, rejecting the Conservative austerity model that, despite interminable expenditure cuts, failed to close the budget deficit or pay down the national debt.

Prime Minister May, who on the eve of the election proposed scrapping human rights legislation in order to better fight terrorism, a day later trumped herself by refusing to admit defeat, defiantly declaring that she had no intention of resigning and would finish “the job” even without the clear mandate she has now been denied. However, in the upper echelons of the Conservative Party the PM’s tenacity in clinging to her “strong and stable” mantra is increasingly seen as an attitude detached from reality.

Though the vote resulted in a hung parliament, PM May turned yet again and insisted that she will provide “a period of stability” given that her party received most votes. Not a week ago, the prime minister, whilst on the stump in Scotland, had warned that a loss of just six seats would see her ejected from office, imploring the British people to hand her a firm mandate to face off the European Union during the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

“A smart and experienced political operator, Mr Corbyn actually prefers the Conservatives to founder under their own power – or lack thereof.”

As it happened, voters took twelve constituencies away from the Conservatives and increased the Labour seat count significantly. Meanwhile, the UK Independence Party was completely wiped off the electoral map, the Scottish National Party lost 21 seats, while the Liberal Democrats managed to gain four. The Greens succeeded to preserving their lone seat in the House of Commons. The Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland returns ten members of parliament, up two, and may now provide the Conservatives with a razor thin majority in parliament – the precise coalition of chaos Mrs May had feared on the left.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, all smiles, on Friday signalled that he will not try to form a coalition in order to wrestle power from the Tories. However, he would be willing to form a minority government. A smart and experienced political operator, Mr Corbyn actually prefers the Conservatives to founder under their own power – or lack thereof. Should she indeed manage to stay at No 10, one never quite knows what Theresa May is really up to, the UK may be in for a prolonged period of uncertainty with a nearly lame duck prime minister whose dismal performance at the polls has severely undermined her authority both inside and outside the country.

In Brussels, the UK prime minister’s electoral debacle causes concern. The European Commission and its chief negotiator Michel Barnier made no secret of their desire for a strong UK government enjoying wide support, fearing that a weak and wobbly one would prove unable to make commitments, take decisions, and keep its critics at bay. With talks scheduled to start on or about June 20, almost a full year after the Brexit vote, EU leaders expressed hope they would be spared any further delays.

“As far as we are concerned, negotiations can start tomorrow morning at half past nine,” said commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. However, Mr Barnier stated that talks can only begin when the UK is ready whilst EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger (Budget and Human Resources) doubted that the UK can get its “act together” in time: “We need a UK government that can act. With a weak negotiating partner, there’s the danger that the negotiations will turn out badly for both sides. I expect more uncertainty now.” Former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, described the election outcome as “yet another own goal” for the UK.

Calls for Mrs May immediate resignation went unheeded as the prime minister visited Buckingham Palace to ask the queen for permission to form a government. Cast in the role of kingmakers, the  Democratic Unionist Party leadership conferred through the night with the Conservatives to hammer out the details of a coalition, either tacit or formal, seeking to extract assurances on a post-Brexit soft border between Northern Ireland and the republic. The DUP also demands a maintenance of the status quo with the six counties refusing to be downgraded to a netherworld halfway inside both the UK and the EU – but not a full member of either one. This position, though far from unreasonable, adds yet another layer of complexity to the upcoming negotiations in Brussels. Finally and on a more personal note, the DUP asked for its former first minister Peter Robinson to be admitted to the House of Lords in return for making the parliamentary arithmetic work in the House of Commons.

Thus, the severely weakened prime minister will hobble along. After meeting with the queen, she offered astonishing assurances that her government will provide “certainty” and bring the country together “securing a Brexit deal that works for everyone.”

Senior Tory leaders, already sharpening their knives, exercised supreme restraint – and hid from cameras and microphones whilst at it – and only responded in muted anger, considering that forcing the prime minister’s resignation now will leave Downing Street open to a much emboldened Jeremy Corbyn.

Perhaps safe for now, the embattled prime minister is by no means out of the woods: former chancellor George Osborne, sacked last year in a cabinet reshuffle and now editor of the Evening Standard and itching for payback, came out swinging, raising doubts on the survivability of the Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party.

Hurriedly meeting and working the phones, Tory MPs apparently agree that Theresa May is now damaged goods and needs to go. The only questions remaining concern the timetable for her exit and whether a full-blown leadership contest must be called for, potentially exposing deep fractures within the party.

The anger is focused on the string of political miscalculations that led to the Tory’s poor performance at the polls. Commenting on the surprise turn of events, pundits likened the Conservative Party to a casino with first David Cameron losing his Brexit bet and now Theresa May bungling her attempt at consolidating power – gambling away a slim but nonetheless workable parliamentary majority.

Fooled by her own sense of destiny into believing that she was up against a looney Marxist, almost universally vilified by the press, Theresa May expected to secure a towering majority in parliament – far in excess of a hundred seats – and seemed eager to don the mantle left by Margaret Thatcher, just as – by the way – her sidekick Boris Johnson, the court jester, imagines himself the second coming of Winston Churchill.

The red line through it all is the disconcerting tendency of some Tories to succumb to delusion whilst serving their own agendas, placing party politics far ahead of the nation’s best interests – a most unedifying attitude.

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