LONDON – In the British general election held Thursday, no party won an overall majority and Britain now has what is termed a hung parliament. The Tories (Conservatives) won the most seats with 318 in a House of Commons of 650, thus falling 8 seats short of a majority. They lost 12 seats. The Labour party came second with 262 seats, gaining 30. The Scottish Nationalists remained the strongest party in Scotland but lost 21 seats to the other main parties opposed to a further independence referendum. The Liberal Democrats won 12 seats and over two million votes. The UK independence Party failed to win a single seat although they were backed by nearly 600,000 voters.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who repeatedly said that she would not call a general election, did not have to call the general election. She had a small majority in the House of Commons and the opposition parties did not, as she claimed, threaten to stop the Brexit process under which Britain would leave the European Union in response to last year’s referendum.
Why did she change her mind? Opinion polls suggested that she had a huge lead of some 20 points over Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, whose left-wing policies and shambolic leadership had alienated a majority in his own party in the House of Commons. Now, May thought, was her chance to establish herself as the true heir to Margaret Thatcher and show that she alone could unify the Tory party under strong leadership. She gambled and lost.
May launched her campaign as if she were in a presidential rather than parliamentary election. She chose as her main slogan “strong and stable leadership” and repeated this ad nauseam. This sound bite was seen as much lacking in substance as her earlier mantra of “Brexit means Brexit.”
The Tory election manifesto, which was drawn up by her close advisers with only limited consultation with selected party officials, was studiously vague on taxes and benefits and the policies it proclaimed were uncosted. On the issue of care for the elderly, which preoccupies an increasingly aging population, the manifesto’s prescriptions were seen as unfair and came to be termed a “dementia” tax. May recognized that this could lose her votes. So she speedily backtracked. This U-turn following her change of mind over calling an election added to the impression that she was not “stable and strong” as she claimed to be.
May canvassed hard and visited as many constituencies regarded as possible targets for her party including constituencies in Labour’s heartlands in the north, but she refused to take part in a TV debate with Corbyn and was consistently evasive in her answers to questions from journalists and members of the public. She failed to demonstrate much charm or charisma and often seemed robotic in her repetition of favorite slogans. In contrast, Corbyn sounded honest and sincere, and gave straight answers to questions. The party’s manifesto was unashamedly populist, promising an end to austerity. Corbyn claimed that the promises in the manifesto had been fully costed and that the additional expenditure could be covered by increased taxes on business and higher incomes.
The manifesto, which included calls for renationalization of rail and utilities, was denounced by the Tories as Marxist and socialist, and a reversion to outdated party policies of the 1960s and 1970. Economists cast doubt on whether the increased taxes could cover the costs and feared that the economy would suffer as investment dried up and companies sought to relocate to more favorable environments.
The manifesto appealed especially to the young and to the “just about managing,” as May termed her target audience. Public services after years of austerity have failed to meet public expectations. The National Health Service has not been able to keep up with increased demands for its services as new treatments and medicines are developed for the aging population. A new formula for funding schools seems likely to lead to cuts for inner-city schools. Public-sector workers, including nurses, whose pay has not kept up with inflation, feel aggrieved by the imposition of an annual 1 percent pay raise. Labour promised additional funds for all these sectors as well as the abolition of tuition fees for university students. These promises, whose appeal was spread through social media, induced many younger voters to go to the polls.
May, who has been preoccupied by Brexit, wanted to turn the election into one focusing on Britain’s departure from the European Union. But the electorate generally took the view that this issue had been settled in principle by last year’s referendum and wanted to concentrate on the “bread and butter” issues of daily life in an age of austerity.
Many Labour Party members of parliament do not trust Corbyn and his friend John McDonnell, the shadow finance minister, whom, like the Tories, they see as Marxist socialists in disguise. They have been trying for over a year to oust left-wing extremists who they fear can never lead the party back to power. Corbyn’s success in the election, however, has changed the party dynamics and a Labour return to more centrist policies is likely to be delayed.
The two appalling terrorist incidents in Manchester and in London during the election campaign focused attention on security issues and particularly on the police whose numbers had been run down under May’s six years in charge of the Home Office. This fact was widely noted but it is questionable whether it had much effect on the outcome. Significantly, however, the incidents did not affect turnout, which at 67.8 percent was higher than many expected in an election that was the third (if the referendum is counted as an election) in two years.
May seems determined to cling on to power and hopes to do so by winning the support of the 10 members of the Democratic Ulster Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. They will exact a high price for their support and with their right-wing views will be uneasy partners. Ambitious Tories are doubtless plotting to oust May and the length of her tenure as prime minister cannot now be predicted.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.
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