A Pyrrhic Victory? UK’s Conservatives in Turmoil Following Snap Election Hubris

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and British Prime Minister Theresa May
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and British Prime Minister Theresa May

It looked like a walk in the park. When British Prime Minister Theresa May called for a sudden election back in April, her position and that of her party seemed one of undisputed strength. Victory and a renewed mandate for governance, coupled with an opposition Labour Party in turmoil, seemed more than likely.

Fast forward to June and the outcome leaves little room for doubt. After a dramatic night as the results rolled in on June 8th, May’s hopes were dashed as her Conservative Party failed to obtain their much-desired triumph, resulting in a hung Parliament with neither side able to form a clear majority. A few weeks ago this result seemed unthinkable. Now it’s undeniable. British politics have changed.

This may seem like an exaggeration for those watching overseas. After all, nobody actually won outright. Brexit is still on the cards, and the Conservatives still occupy more seats in Parliament than the opposition. Theresa May has already opened up talks with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in an attempt to form an emergency coalition to regain a hold on government and fend off an increasingly confident opposition. Business, it seems, may go on as usual, at least in the short term.

This ignores a very substantive point, however. The Labour Party was supposedly set to be wiped out in multiple constituencies, with a poll on the eve of the election claiming that May would achieve a “landslide” victory not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Neither of the above has taken place. Labour actually won a larger share of the vote than it has in decades, with the Conservatives losing over a dozen seats and ultimately failing to maintain a hold on their monopoly on power. This was not an all-out victory, but it was a hard fight that yielded significant gains.

May committed some serious mistakes. In addition to a disastrous party manifesto that included some genuinely callous attempts to penalize the elderly and ailing, terrorist attacks in both Manchester and London cast scrutiny on the Prime Minister’s cuts to the police force. Despite having been warned that her decision to curtail police numbers would make it harder to detect and tackle terrorist networks, the government went ahead with their reforms anyway, something that rightly cast them in a bad light in the wake of devastation on the streets of several major cities. The electoral results last Thursday are perhaps not so much of a surprise to some.

What happens next is the cardinal question. With Parliament initially in dead-lock, no side had a clear mandate to form a new government. The smaller parties soon became subject to much scrutiny, given their potential to tip the balance in the favour of whichever of the major power blocs they decided to affiliate with. This is exactly what happened in 2010 when the Liberal Democrats made a pact with the Conservatives, ushering in five years of coalition government that saw some of the worst periods of austerity politics in this country in recent memory.

History has not repeated itself so readily, however. The liberals paid for their opportunism of seven years ago by being decimated in elections in 2015. They also suffered severely on June 8th, apparently being surprised that the electorate hasn’t yet forgotten their record of slavish collaboration with the Conservatives. The Prime Minister’s list of potential allies was already looking increasingly thin, and with talk of her impending resignation she appears to have made a gamble. An alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party is the end result.

Why the DUP?

The Conservatives didn’t have much of a choice. While the DUP remain the largest party in the Northern Irish Assembly, they are a minor element in the British Parliament, holding just ten seats out of a grand total of six hundred and fifty. Desperate times seem to have called for desperate measures, however, with the notoriously right-wing DUP seeming to be the only faction the Conservatives could turn to without compromising their political credentials.

Yet this is not a match made in heaven. Despite being quick to stress their previously good relations, the Conservatives will be aware that their position is increasingly vulnerable, even with the DUP on board. If anything they could make the situation potentially more difficult in a number of areas, with their new-found ally having more than a few skeletons in the closet when it comes to the troubles in Northern Ireland and actual violence on the part of loyalist paramilitaries.

After having hurled a deluge of vitriol in the direction of Jeremy Corbyn for his supposed links with Irish Republicanism, it seems this new alliance will ultimately lead to a few awkward questions being put to the Prime Minister. And rightly so. In addition to its links with political violence, the DUP has a record that’s proving unpalatable even for some Conservatives, having denounced climate change as a myth, opposed gay marriage, and engaged in myriad other controversial stances that will prove difficult for any prospective new government to address. All of the above point to the fact that this is an alliance of desperation, not principle.

The repercussions are already being felt. Nearly three hundred thousand have signed an ongoing petition urging the Prime Minister to reject any deal with the DUP, in part because of the impact it could have on destabilising the situation in Northern Ireland. This is another important, if often overlooked, concern. Like mainland Britain, Northern Ireland currently has no fully functional government, with the republican Sinn Féin having refused to continue talks last March on new multi-party governance agreements for the six counties.

While in normal times this might be disconcerting enough, the British government is supposed to be playing the role of mediator between the contending parties. This is something it simply won’t be able to do with any degree of impartiality if it takes one of those parties, in this instance the DUP, into its own ranks.

While Sinn Féin have made moves to now resume talks in the hope of restoring some kind of consensus on governance, the fact is that the Conservatives have made a serious blunder attempting to make a deal with a party already associated with both violence on the street and factionalism in politics. Theresa May’s credibility has taken a hit across the board, with some even accusing her of “blatant disregard” for the situation in Ireland in her bid to retain a grip on power elsewhere.

Corbyn’s Impact

Yet it’s the opposition Labour Party that is perhaps causing the Prime Minister sleepless nights. LP leader Jeremy Corbyn has much to do with placing the Conservatives in hot water. Previously regarded as a political weakling by opponents, the man is easily one of the more controversial characters in modern British politics, having chalked up a distinguished, if often side-lined, reputation over a parliamentary career going back decades.

It also rendered him unsuitable for office, not just in terms of party leadership but anything that didn’t involve relegation to the back benches. Back in the late 1990s and 2000s, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s re-branding of Labour as a “modernizing” (neo-liberal) and “sensible” force had little time for the likes of Corbyn. Rupert Murdoch and George Bush were the company of choice in those years, with the “hard left” (or just anyone with a functioning conscience) omitted from the political narrative.

That changed in 2015 when Corbyn made a sudden and unexpected bid for the leadership. After a deluge of attempts at demoralization from inside and outside the party, Corbyn won by a landslide, forming one of the most egalitarian shadow cabinets in British history and placing Labour on firm footing for a prospective fightback against then Prime Minister David Cameron.

All was not well in Labour’s ranks, however. Not everyone wished to see the sorry legacy of Blairism put to rest, nor risk their plush parliamentary careers being squandered on anything bearing a resemblance to political principle. Talk of an anti-Corbyn coup surfaced actually prior to him even becoming party leader, with the Blairites ultimately getting organized enough to mount a challenge to Corbyn and trigger a second leadership election.

They lost badly. In fact, Corbyn did better in terms of total support during the second contest than he had previously, with some ten thousand supporters having gathered in Parliament Square within twenty-four hours of the election’s announcement. The supposed disaster that was Jeremy Corbyn had proven, once again, to be remarkably popular.

The above may seem like history. But it matters when it comes to ascertaining why the government made the seemingly obscure decision to call for an early election. It’s also relevant when it comes to an analysis of how the Conservatives fared so badly.

Easy Target?

It’s been mentioned elsewhere that Brexit has not been going very well. What was initially touted by Eurosceptics as a move to “take back control” from a presumably hegemonic European Union has actually sown uncertainty in the financial sector. While this may seem little cause for concern for the average person in the street, such anxiety has ensured that already endemic problems like homelessness, food insecurity, and poverty remain pressing issues.

The Conservatives no doubt sought a renewed mandate for power in order to act with confidence when it came to further negotiations with the EU. They also most likely sensed an opportunity to win another victory while the going was still somewhat favorable, ensuring that the likely fallout from Brexit (and loss of popular support) could be handled safely at a later date.

Yet it’s their view of the Labour Party that is of particular note. Ever eager to capitalize on a hostile and distinctly partisan media, Theresa May made repeated references to her opponent’s character, inferring that she was the only “strong and stable” candidate to represent the country. Genuinely seeming to believe that Corbyn was a non-entity among the electorate (despite leading the largest political organization in the country) the Conservatives appear to have expected Corbyn to be an easy target, one they could conveniently smash aside before he was able to accrue additional support as Brexit took its ongoing toll.

It’s an obvious point that they misjudged. Corbyn’s polices were already remarkably popular, with his promises to repeal university tuition fees, expand social housing, suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and potentially re-evaluate foreign policy having stuck a chord with the populace. The media campaign to denounce him grew more absurd by the day. Many saw through it and acted accordingly.

This in itself is of note. For years the general consensus among the political elite is that the British populace will only vote for something called the “center ground.” While the meaning behind this term is often ambiguous, it’s often been used to disguise a general drift to the right, with anyone posing as remotely left wing immediately being denounced as both “out of touch” and unelectable. It’s no secret that Corbyn has been attacked with such terms incessantly.  What is novel is how the “center ground” appears to have turned out to be a myth, with a distinctly leftist candidate having proved, time and again, both inside and outside his own party, to be eminently popular.

It’s unclear why this has turned out to be such a shock for the Conservatives. At the risk of sounding simplistic, it seems there was a fair amount of political hubris at work. Just two years back, then Prime Minister David Cameron openly denounced leftist MP Dennis Skinner as “Jurassic Park,” itself a rather infantile jibe used to imply that his kind of politics were dead and gone. While this is just one example of the level of arrogance frequently displayed in the corridors of power, it does point to the strange notion that the days of traditional Labour values is dead and gone. Given what’s happened in the past few days, it’s time this crass assumption was re-examined.

Future Prospects

The situation is volatile. It’s unclear right now whether Theresa May will be able to maintain her position. She’s already been forced to dismiss several key advisers, itself a clear indication of the discontent within her own ranks. Not everyone in the government wanted this election. Some saw it as a gamble. It seems they had good reasons to think so. The Prime Minister could yet pay a heavier price.

The alliance with the DUP is also a destabilizing force. Across the water it’s ruffled more than a few feathers, with local politicians resenting what they perceive to be a British Prime Minister playing political chess with Northern Irish affairs. A similar reaction is expected back in London, with the DUP’s record likely to prove more than a little controversial with not just the left but multiple factions within May’s own party. What initially looked like an alliance of convenience may ultimately prove to be yet another burden.

Meanwhile, Corbyn is not going away. While the Scottish National Party (SNP) suffered during the election (losing ground to both Scottish Labour and the Conservatives) a potential “progressive alliance” is alleged in some quarters to be on the cards. What this might look like is an open question. If Labour can obtain some degree of consensus in an anti-Conservative deal with other contending parties then things may be about to become even more interesting.

This is unlikely, however. The Liberal Democrats are a spent force, having used up any political capital they may have had on their shameless coalition with the Conservatives in 2010-2015. It would be short-sighted to forget this. Likewise, it seems difficult to imagine Labour and the SNP being able to forge much agreement, given the two parties have fought toe to toe in recent years over both Scottish independence and Labour’s ongoing efforts to retain a presence north of the border.

While some form of co-operation is not impossible it does remain a distant prospect. The Green Party, while often gaining much publicity, is not a serious political contender, retaining just a single seat in Parliament. For the foreseeable future, the heavy hitters in British politics will remain Labour and the Conservatives.

Corbyn has fought and obtained what some are calling an “honorable defeat.” But if there was ever to be a pyrrhic victory for the Conservatives then this may be it. Their party is in turmoil, and their distinctly unelected Prime Minister may still not survive the next few weeks. The deal with the DUP is an unwelcome one, inside and outside Conservative Party ranks. Brexit continues to cast a long shadow over the proceedings, with upcoming negotiations with Brussels now on a disconcertingly unsteady footing. May wanted a renewed mandate precisely for this moment. She’s lost out.

What is clear is that politics in Britain have changed. “New Labour”, as in the neoliberal legacy of Tony Blair, may have finally expired. The idea that anything resembling the left must remain on the periphery has died with it. We have challenged the smug consensus that there is no alternative, that there is, to quote Margaret Thatcher “no such thing as society” and that individual self-interest must always trump the general welfare. This alone is a remarkable development. The future is no doubt hazardous, yet it shows more promise than we have seen in years.

Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specializing in human rights and international relations. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both global politics and human rights. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at DanielTRead.