British Election Leads To Hung Parliament, Theresa May Forms Uncertain Coalition
A massive political miscalculation by Theresa May leads to an uncertain future in the United Kingdom.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for June 8th, three years earlier than British law requires for a new election after 2015’s big win for the Conservative Party, it seemed like a smart political move. Polls at the time showed May’s Conservative with massive leads in the polls over Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party that suggested that the Tories would make impressive and massive gains in the House of Commons that would secure her position for the upcoming Brexit negotiations and keep the party in power until at least 2022. Labour itself look disorganized and weak thanks to what most people saw as the ineffectual and divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, who represented the far-left wing of the party and advocated positions that sounded more like the rhetoric of Neil Kinnock than Tony Blair. Most importantly, May had gotten fully behind the British public’s decision to exit the European Union, a position now embraced by all of the United Kingdom’s major political politics with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, who had been decimated in the 2015 elections.
As the campaign went on, though, things seemed to go off the rails. Slowly but surely, Labour began to close the gap in the national polls that had showed the Tories massive lead, while national support dropped off the highs it had been for the better part of two years. The United Kingdom was rocked by terror attacks, first in Manchester and then in Central London itself, that left a total of some thirty people dead and more than one hundred people injured. While this type of event might typically be seen as something that would push voters to the right, it also apparently harmed May, who had served as Home Secretary for six years under David Cameron, a position that put her at the top of the national bureaucracy responsible for the security of the nation. Finally, May herself proved to be a less than ideal campaigner as head of her party, certainly not as good as David Cameron and possessing nowhere near possessing the political skills of the last female Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. By the time we got to Election Day, the outcome of the vote was up in the air, but it still looked like the Tories would retain sufficient national support to hold on to power, and the fact that previous national polling had
By the time we got to Election Day, the outcome of the vote was up in the air, but it still looked like the Tories would retain sufficient national support to hold on to power, and the fact that previous national polling still had Conservatives in the lead suggested that this was the the most likely outcome. Instead, just as it did two years ago in the last General Election and last year with the Brexit Referendum, things took an unexpected turn. The first sign things would not turn out as expected came early in the evening when the nationwide Exit Poll was released and it showed a much closer race than expected, and that the most likely result would be a Hung Parliament in which no party held an outright majority and in which a coalition government of some kind would be required. By the time the smoke cleared this morning, that’s exactly what happened, and it left Prime Minister May with a plurality of seats in Parliament and forced to form what seems likely to be a fragile coalition government with a small party from Northern Ireland in order to hold onto power:
LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, smarting from a humbling snap-election defeat that cost her Conservative Party its governing majority, said on Friday that her party would stay in power by forming a minority government with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
“What the country needs more than ever is certainty, and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the general election, it is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist Party has the legitimacy and the ability to provide that certainty, by commanding a majority in the House of Commons,” Mrs. May said outside No. 10 Downing Street, using the full name of her party. “As we do, we will continue to work with our friends and allies, in the Democratic Unionist Party in particular.”
Mrs. May had called an election three years early in the hope of winning a stronger mandate as Britain prepares for two years of negotiations over its withdrawal from the European Union, but voters did not reward her gamble. Instead, they produced a hung Parliament — one in which no party has an outright majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.
The fractured voting — which saw strong gains by the largest opposition party, Labour, and modest gains by a smaller party, the centrist Liberal Democrats — was a further indication of stark political divisions in Britain, days before formal negotiations over withdrawal from the European Union are scheduled to begin in Brussels.
The uncertain outcome in Britain immediately prompted speculation that the start of negotiations might be delayed, or that the talks could drag for longer than two years, as scheduled — speculation that European officials, in public at least, tried to tamp down. “I don’t think we should talk about some prolongation of the deadline,” said the Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said he was ready for talks to begin immediately. “We are waiting for visitors coming from London,” he said. “I hope that we will not experience a further delay in the conclusion of these negotiations.”
Despite the loss of at least 12 seats for the Conservatives, Mrs. May will try to form a working majority with the Democratic Unionist Party, which won 10 seats on Thursday. With 318 Conservative seats plus the D.U.P. seats, Mrs. May would have 328 votes — just above the 326 needed for a majority. Mrs. May confirmed her plan to form a minority government after a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.
The D.U.P., a historically Protestant party that seeks to maintain Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, has close ties with the Conservatives, and it supported Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. “I certainly think that there will be contact made over the weekend,” said Arlene Foster, the party’s leader, “but I think it is too soon to talk about what we’re going to do.”
There is a precedent for this situation: The Ulster Unionist Party, another faction from Northern Ireland, helped shore up the government of John Major, a Conservative prime minister, from 1992 to 1997.
In some respects, the election on Thursday also resembled the one in 2010, when the Conservatives won the most seats in a general election but did not have a majority of seats. Under David Cameron, Mrs. May’s predecessor, they formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats.
Whatever emerges will most likely be more fragile. In a coalition, the junior partner takes ministerial seats, is part of day-to-day decisions by the cabinet and shares a platform with the governing party. In a minority government, in contrast, a smaller party merely agrees to support the governing party in votes on legislation, but is not necessarily be part of the leadership. It was unclear on Friday what price the D.U.P. might exact from the Conservatives for its support.
Whatever emerges will most likely be more fragile than the coalition formed in 2010 by Mr. Cameron, which lasted five years.
And even if Mrs. May were to survive in the medium term, her authority has been badly damaged. She is certain to face demands from lawmakers in her own party that she change her leadership style and consult more widely. Nigel Evans, a senior Conservative lawmaker, blamed the party’s so-called manifesto, or platform, over which Mrs. May had to reverse course within days, for the election failure.
Based on the election results as we have them this morning, the Conservatives will enter the new House of Commons with 318 seats, by far the majority of any party in the chamber but at least five seats short of an outright majority. Labour, meanwhile, will have 260 seats, a significant gain that can be attributed to winning seat held by Tories in England and the fact that the party managed to belie expectations and make a comeback in Scotland, where it had been decimated in 2015 by the Scottish National Party, which lost about twenty seats and saw its membership fall from the 56 seats it held after the 2015 elections to 35 seats this morning. The Liberal Democrats, the only major party to oppose Brexit, managed to stage a small comeback and increased their membership in the House of Commons from eight seats to 12 seats. The final party to have more than ten seats in the new House of Commons is the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish Party that will apparently be part of the coalition with the Tories who will now hold 12 seats, thus giving the coalition just about enough seats to form a government. The remaining thirty or so seats will be held by a variety of small parties, with the largest of those being Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein, which traditionally never takes the seats it wins in due to the fact that it has a platform that essentially rejects the U.K. and favors unification of Northern Ireland with the rest of Ireland.
At least on paper, then, May will have sufficient numbers in her coalition to be able to govern, although it’s unclear just how stable that coalition will be going forward. There are significant differences between the Tories and the D.U.P. that could strain the relationship early on, or potentially weaken May’s position in her own party if she is seen as too accommodating to the D.U.P.’s position. For example, while the D.U.P. supports the result of the Brexit referendum, it is on record as supporting a most softer position than the one that May has pledged to take on issues such as the trade agreements between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Additionally, the D.U.P. is on record supporting continuing the current cross-border trade and travel agreements between Northern Ireland and Ireland and seems likely to demand some kind of accommodation on that issue. Additionally, the D.U.P. is far more conservative on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage and has been the primary force in the Northern Ireland Assembly in blocking the expansion of same-sex marriage to that part of the United Kingdom. While it’s unclear what kind of agreement the Tories and the D.U.P. have reached, these and other differences could prove problematic for the long-term stability of the coalition and could result in election well before 2022, when they would next be required under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act. If this coalition falls apart, then we could see another round of elections well before 2022.
In addition to the stability of the coalition, it’s also unclear just how stable May herself will be as leader of the Tories going forward. While her decision to call for a snap election seemed like an act of political genius in April, it now appears to have been a severe miscalculation that has reduced her party from a position where it possessed an outright majority to one where it is formed to once again seek a coalition to form a government. Whether this will weaken her position as the Tory leader remains to be seen, and she may yet face a leadership challenge that, if it succeeds, could result in yet another round of elections by a Prime Minister who will not have faced voters as leader of their party. On the Labour side, meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn has strengthened his own position as leader of the opposition for the foreseeable future thanks to the increase in support that the party garnered in yesterday’s vote. However, this could prove problematic for Labour down the road as the doubts about Corbyn’s ability to lead the party back to the majority position it enjoyed under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010 will no doubt continue to exist.
The final question, of course, is what all of this means for the biggest issue that will face anyone who heads the British government for the foreseeable future, the negotiations over the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which are set to begin in a matter of weeks and last for a period of two years at least. As I noted above, there are some important differences on the terms of Brexit between the Tories and the D.U.P. that could strain the coalition, and it seems likely that European Union negotiations will be aware of those potential conflict and seek to exploit them to their advantage over the course of the coming negotiations. This could further strain the Tory-D.U.P. coalition or weaken May’s position within the Conservative Party if it is perceived that she has paid too dear a price for support in Parliament by modifying the party’s position on key negotiation points.
This all leaves us with several unresolved issues that the U.K. will have to deal with, likely sooner rather than later. How stable will the Tory/D.U.P. coalition be? How stable is May’s position as Tory leader? And, what happens to the Brexit negotiations? The answers to all of those questions remain uncertain at this point.