The British General Election 2017 by Um HomenTerrorists, a wheatfield, a man wearing a bucket, pop-star like adulation over a man aged almost seventy…the recent UK general election had it all.
Prime Minister Theresa May came to office about a year ago, following David Cameron’s resignation in the aftermath of the unexpected win of the Leave side in the EU referendum. Although a low-key Remain supporter herself, she swiftly embraced the Leave side, claiming she had to ‘respect the will of the British people.’ After many months of dithering on what Britain’s negotiating position would be, she eventually confirmed – to the dismay of the markets – that Britain would seek not only to leave the EU but to drop out of its customs union and its single market. This was at odds with promises made by Boris Johnson and others during the EU referendum, that Britain could somehow leave the EU but maintain all those benefits – ‘we can have our cake and eat it’ as Boris said. Britain now faced crashing out of the EU without a trade deal with it – the so-called ‘Hard Brexit.’ When she became leader, May was seen as a firm leader of both the party and the country, admired and respected across the political spectrum.
The same could not be said of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party backbench MP who had become leader of the opposition the year before. As a serial rebel against leaders from Neil Kinnock onwards, a member of the hard-left ‘awkward squad, many of the party’s ‘moderates’ (sometimes reviled as ‘Blairites’ or as ‘Red Tories’) distrusted him and felt he would make the party unelectable. He had supported the Remain side in the referendum, but rather weakly. Labour, post the referendum, supported the idea of Brexit but managed to cobble together an ambiguous policy on the subject. Corbyn came into the campaign boosted by a win in an internal party election triggered by a challenge from moderate MP Owen Smith. However, not long after the calling of the election Labour suffered heavy losses in local elections. The polls seemed to indicate that Labour would face heavy losses on a scale not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s post Falklands landslide in 1983. May felt that such a win would give her a mandate for her Brexit position.
There were also other party leaders with a lot at stake. The Liberal Democrat Party had been a coalition partner of the Tories in the last parliament, and had lost most of its MPs as a result. Its new leader, Tim Farron, sought to position his party to attract all those – ‘the 48%’ – who voted Remain in the referendum. In Scotland, the SNP leader and Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, sought to retain her parties hold over all but three of Scotland’s Westminster seats, against a strong challenge from Ruth Davidson, the youthful charismatic leader of Scotland’s virtually autonomous Tory Party. Sturgeon hoped that a strong showing would strengthen her push for a second independence referendum for Scotland
Almost from the off nothing played to the script. Theresa May declined to take part in any election debates. She also addressed mostly carefully staged events with only chosen supporters and staffers present. Corbyn, meanwhile, addressed large crowds. He faced a hostile Tory press, but most of their line against him had been done to death before the poll was called. Farron, meanwhile, never really got going. He was dogged by the question of whether he thought gay sex was sinful. As an evangelical Christian he was constantly facing old quotes dug up from his past in which had indicated that it was, and that abortion was wrong. It soon became clear that the middle ground was fading, that the Lib Dems would not do well, and it would be a straightforward fight between the Tories and Labour.
The Tories campaigned hard in Labour’s heartlands – the north of England, and Wales. They thought that pressing the line of Corbyn’s supposed ineluctability would strike a chord there. But Labour found a strange middle course. The party’s traditionalists – many of them people with small-c ‘conservative’ leanings – stayed loyal to the party. Arguably this was not because they were impressed by Corbyn but more because they were satisfied that the opposition to Corbyn would keep him in check and prevent him from being too left wing if elected. They were helped by the fact that Labour’s manifesto was far more moderate than expected. Corbyn freely admitted that many of his chosen policies had not made it in – far from being seen as a sign of weakness many Britons, tired of the diktats of strong leaders like Thatcher, Blair and Cameron, warmed to the idea of a more collegial leader. Meanwhile, Corbyn also enthused many young people, and members of minority groups, who previously did not vote on the basis that politicians ‘were all the same.’ He drew bigger and bigger crowds.
Terror attacks in Manchester and London were thought by some to be a Tory false flag attempt to discredit Corbyn, who the Tory-supporting press often portrayed as a terror sympathiser due to his contacts with IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein, back in the 1980s and 1990s. Corbyn spoke after the Manchester attack to partly blame British foreign policy for the terror threat to this country. He was much maligned for this, although it was also pointed out that people from all over the political arena, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, had said similar things in the past.
Standards of journalism were somewhat lazy. The press never really changed their view of Corbyn, sticking to the dated attack tropes which had been used for years. Interviews of politicians tended to be of the ‘gotcha’ variety – trying to catch them out by showing that they had forgotten a particular number or a fact. Labour’s shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, was particularly vulnerable to this school of interviewing. She eventually stood down temporarily towards the end of the campaign.
However, the big story of the election was Prime Minister May being ‘found out.’ She was not the leader people had thought she was. She endlessly repeated a mantra about being ‘strong and stable,’ whilst standing for office on a Tory manifesto that was vague and uncosted, while the Labour equivalent was neither. She was ridiculed by the press as ‘the Maybot’, and panic started to spread in Tory circles as May flapped under pressure, reversing party policy on care for the elderly (the so-called ‘dementia tax.’) Some of her interviews seemed bizarre – she would give repeated non-answers to questions, and once, when asked about any youthful misdeeds she may have committed she alluded to having run through a wheatifeld causing a nuisance to farmers. US-based British journalist John Oliver was later to mock her as ‘Thatcher in the Rye!’
As the election campaign drew to a close, the polls showed Labour closing in on the Tories. It was thought that the latter would still get a majority, probably larger than Cameron’s but not the landslide expected before. Labour supporters did not dare to dream, having been disappointed by opinion polls in 1992 and 2015.
However, this led to one of the great election nights of recent years. As in 2015, the exit poll was a big surprise. Then, it foreshadowed David Cameron’s slim majority, this time, it revealed that May would lose hers, and with it her mandate for ‘Hard Brexit’. The exit poll was borne out overnight. Labour gained thirty seats, the Tories lost thirteen. The Lib Dems gained four seats, but their losses included former leader and erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. May won her seat, receiving the result standing next to the fringe candidate Lord Buckethead.
Meanwhile in Scotland a different result unfolded. The SNP lost twenty-one seats, with the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour all regaining ground in that country. But the big winner north of the border was Ruth Davidson, whose party gained 12 seats. This put May in a strange position as Scottish Tories were generally pro-Remain and would not support her ‘Hard Brexit’ position.
In Northern Ireland, the two extremes – the nationalist Sinn Fein and the Unionist DUP, did well, dividing the province’s seats between them. This was to be May’s saving grace, as the DUP’s tens eats could provide support for her now-minority government. Sinn Fein’s nationalists never take up their seats at Westminster, following an almost century old tradition.
And so the curtain fell. May, much weakened, simply refused to acknowledge a set back and seemed determined to proceed on Brexit as if nothing had changed. However voices within and outside her party indicated that a more consensual approach might be needed. Labour, in particular , seemed to have gained Remain votes from voters of all parties. This is probably thanks more to the deliberately all-things-to-all-men strategy pursued by Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary , Sir Keir Starmer, who Corbyn has left largely to his own devices in this regard.
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron resigned, blaming hostility towards his beliefs. Ruth Davidson waxed triumphant, and Nicola Sturgeon looked set to abandon any idea of a second Scottish independence referendum. And Corbyn – well he emerged triumphant. He is probably immune from challenge in the party now, although disputes rage in party circles as to whether opposition from moderates made the party’s showing in the election better or worse.
What does the future hold? Who knows? But it would be a brave man or woman who bets on the government (or Mrs May’s leadership of it) lasting to the due end of the parliament in 2022.