The UK election: Another fine mess you’ve got us into

poundsinkingThe English have a fine word for the political mess it finds itself in at the moment–kerfuffle, which is defined as “a commotion or fuss, especially one caused by conflicting views.” Boy, if there was ever a kerfuffle, we’re in one right now.

Theresa May and the Tories, who were expected to have a 100 seat majority even as late as the morning of the election by some polls, actually lost seats, and its Parliamentary majority. The result of this is the Tories can’t form a government on its own, unless it tries to form a minority government (which has happened before in postwar history, under Labour in the 1970s). Jeremy Corbyn, who, if you believed the press and even many Labour politicians (cue Tony Blair), was expected to lead the party to electoral disaster, didn’t. In fact, the reverse occurred. Labour received 40% of the vote (as compared with the Conservative’s 42%), its best showing in years. It’s the biggest Labour Parliamentary gain since Clement Atlee.

So there is a lot of crow to be eaten around now, or should be, anyway. We could start with the pollsters, who were generally calling for a solid Tory victory, with one two exceptions. The YouGov poll was the most notable outlier, with its outright prediction of a hung Parliament, which is exactly what we got. It was rejected outright by practically everyone when it was released prior to the election, however. So, like the last two major elections (the 2015 Parliamentary election, and the Brexit vote) the vast majority of pollsters got it completely wrong.

Then there’s the media, whose outright hostility to Corbyn (especially at the BBC) has been manifest for several years now. Like the pollsters, the vast majority of media pundits got this completely wrong as well. Some at least have recognized this. Owen Jones of The Guardian, at least, has apologized to Corbyn, but few others have. Nick Cohen has grudgingly admitted that Corbyn ran a good campaign, but still can’t stand him, and makes no bones about telling you so. John Rentoul at The Independent also admitted he got it wrong, and he had a good comment yesterday on how Brexit is now much messier than before the election. But his column today is a list of books–he’s clearly as exhausted as everyone else. Former Guardian editor David Hearst has an excellent obituary for The Guardian’s lousy coverage here, but The Guardian was hardly the only offending party. Former Foreign Office guy Craig Murray has a good general and depressing summary here.

There’s a fascinating story here about how Corbyn put together a winning campaign–and by winning I mean not the election, which he clearly didn’t do, but rather his success at taking enough seats away from Conservatives to prevent them from forming a government, and for growing the Labour vote against all expectations. The Tories lost 13 seats, Labour gained 30. In the face of unremitting hostility from the media and punditry, and indeed many in his own party, this is a significant–indeed, remarkable–result. That story will eventually get told. I suspect the reason no one has really got around to focusing on these issues is that there is too much else going on.

Where are we at the moment? It’s hard to tell, because the landscape seems to be changing hourly. This is a level of uncertainty that British institutions aren’t really prepared for. Conservatives avoided a hung Parliament in 2010 by forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The UK has had minority government before, though–various Labour governments of the 1970s. These are not fondly remembered, though, although it could happen again. The Telegraph has the confusing details of what could happen next here.

So at the moment we have the dis-spiriting spectacle of Prime Minister (for the time being) Theresa May attempting to put together a working coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party–its ten votes would allow May to form a majority government. This is not without its problems, however. The DUP was founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley back during The Troubles, and is known for, among other things, its opposition to same sex marriage (and any form or same sex equality, for that matter), its hard line on abortion (it’s against it), and the occasional prominence of global warming deniers and supporters of creationism among its leadership. Granted, there are certainly some Tories who share some or all of these views–but they’re not in a position to affect legislation the way the DUP might be. This is without even looking very hard at the not implausible concern about the DUP’s former terrorist links. We’ll just let that one go for the time being.

(To its marginal credit, the DUP is opposed to May’s strategy of a Hard Brexit (leaving not only the European Union, but all other European economic groups as well), and has also indicated it does not want a hard border introduced between Ireland and Northern Ireland–one of the potential impacts of Brexit for the UK, one contingent on any number of possibilities).

Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down well. There is lots of general concern (there’s has already been a march in London, and an on-line petition opposing this has received nearly 700,000 signatures after a day) across the political spectrum. More importantly there is considerable concern within the Tory party as well as to whether to hook up with such a hard-line group. Yes, they are a democratically elected group of representatives. That doesn’t mean sacrificing the Good Friday Agreement, however (a likely casualty of any such alliance), or jeopardizing relationships within the Tory Party itself. The most notable concern here surrounds Ruth Davidson, the openly gay leader of the Scottish conservatives, who had a smashing election, and is now in a position of some power–the Scottish Tories gained twelve more seats (over the one they previously held). One could argue they’re the only reason May is in any distance whatsoever of being able to put a government together in the first place. Is she going to go for this arrangement? Doubtful.

In fact, there are so many concerns about this arrangement (which May’s office announced initially, and then had to backtrack on after the DUP announced that no, there was not yet a deal) that there are real questions about whether it’s achievable. And even if it is, at what other costs? This is one of the reasons why there’s speculation that May won’t last very long. A meeting with some of the more hard line backbenchers (who want a hard Brexit) looks likely to be moved up to tomorrow. There’s lots of speculation about a loss in confidence in May, and a possible run by some other luminaries, Boris Johnson in particular (Johnson has denied this, but no one believes him, given his frequent distance from truth or accuracy). George Osborne, fired by May last year as Chancellor, has declared her a “dead woman walking.” There’s also the possible speculation, which Jeremy Corbyn has not at all discouraged, that May and the Tories will be unable to form any kind of government, minority or otherwise, given the potential leadership vacuum at the top of the Tories, and the too many constituencies within the Tory Party. An alternative minority government, led by the Labour Party, can’t be ruled out at this point.

One interesting aspect of this is that the prospect of a Labour Government is not regarded as a peculiar form of pathological madness, as it was even several weeks ago. This is one inference to be made about the election. Corbyn clearly won the battle of personality, which was unfortunate for May, who tried to make it an election about personality in the first place, but who clearly doesn’t have one. This was a mistake, not the only one she made, but perhaps the most important one. May came across as the hectoring aunt you don’t want to sit next to at the family party. Corbyn came across as the avuncular, soft-spoken grandfather who, surprisingly, more often than not made sense–often more sense than anyone would admit. He was raked over the coals by the media and the punditry for his comments that we need to re-think our counter-terrorism strategy, which magically got transformed into being soft on terrorism–but, in fact, it seems a sizable portion of the population agrees with Corbyn’s position here. And he’s right–anyone who doesn’t think we need to re-think this is delusional. That’s not to say that a Labour government will necessarily emerge here, or that it would even be a good government. Like everything else, it’s all speculation at this point. But at present, I don’t believe that anyone’s predictions are to be treated more seriously than anyone else’s.

All of this, by the way, it taking place amidst the backdrop of Brexit negotiations, which are supposed to start on 19 June–which is, what, a week from tomorrow? Well, we’ll see about that. These were already going to be arduous negotiations, and there were already significant concerns over whether May’s team really understood the stakes here, or even the procedures. The Financial Times, for example, has pointed out that Brexit means that the number of trade treaties that will need to be renegotiated is, um, “at least 759.” I see no evidence whatsoever that the current Tory leadership understands the implications of this. And, as if that weren’t enough, the UK is now the EU’s worst-performing economy–first quarter growth was 0.2%. None of the election farce will be taken by markets as encouraging news–the pound continues to collapse against both the US Dollar and the Euro. It’s a real good time to visit London.

This really does seem to be changing by the hour, and some of this could be outdated in a couple of hours. As Harold Wilson reputedly once said, “A week is a long time in politics.” It hasn’t even been a week–it’s been just three days–and I’m exhausted. For political junkies like me, this is heaven–or would be, if the stakes weren’t so high, and so many of the players clearly out of their depth.

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