British election breakfast


We had an election in Britain this week. The Conservatives won, though not quite convincingly enough to have a majority in Parliament on their own. Since the seven elected on the Sinn Fein ticket will not be taking their seats (they won’t take the oath of office which involves pledging allegiance to the Crown), the magic number is 322 — and the Conservatives are 4 short of that. For all the praise being lavished on Jeremy Corbyn, Labour are 60 short of that figure, having gained 30 seats. Theresa May continues for the moment as PM, since she’s going to make some accommodation with the Democratic Unionists, a bunch of anti-abortion, anti-gay climate deniers from the Northern Irish Protestant community.

The DUP wouldn’t even consider allying with Labour while Corbyn remains leader: they regard him as an IRA sympathiser. Which hints at what Corbyn’s admirers don’t want to remember: the man has a lot of baggage from his past which can prove very off-putting, however unfairly. Hillary Clinton also had baggage, most of it unfairly placed, but it certainly didn’t help.

And those who think that a very left-wing manifesto is a winner have to contend with the stark fact that Labour came second by some distance.

Sorry to be a bit of a wet blanket, but we in Britain still face a Conservative government and Labour still have a mountain to climb if they’re going to govern on their own.

For domestic reasons that need not concern you, this diary is going to be pretty short anyway, but reading commentary on the election on Saturday has not been a particularly uplifting experience. Just about every piece I’ve read which has a byline is accompanied by the deafening sound of the writer grinding their personal axe, because it’s still far too soon for anyone to have more than hand-waving and guesswork available for analysis.

So let’s have a look at some unsigned editorials which seem to me to be reasonably unsensationalised. First, The Guardian:

What Mrs May and many others did not see was the mood for change among the British people. After seven years of fiscal austerity, with deep cuts in public services and a steady fall in real wages, millions of voters wanted a better and fairer way for Britain. Mrs May herself partially understood that, as her embrace of the just-about-managing and her disapproval of greedy City executives showed. But she failed to turn those words into deeds. Instead she campaigned as an inflexible ironclad, spurning debate, parroting inane slogans, insulting her opponents and botching her manifesto launch. It was an emotionally unintelligent campaign. At times it verged on the delusional and hubristic. And it ruthlessly exposed Mrs May’s many failings.

Mrs May still doesn’t get it. Her response to what was unquestionably an immense electoral rebuff and, in some ways, a defeat, was to behave today as though nothing has changed. She was clearly stunned on election night. But she then circled the wagons, made a secret deal with the reactionary Democratic Unionists, headed to the palace and returned to Downing Street to promise business as usual, Brexit talks starting on schedule, and no policy change whatever. A few hours later, she gave an interview regretting the Tory losses, but still in shocking denial about the outcome.

If Mrs May continues to behave like this, she will not deserve to remain at the head of her party or be in charge of this epochal moment in Britain’s relationship with its best and nearest allies in Europe.

On the campaign trail and in the interview studio, Mr Corbyn displayed all the empathy that Mrs May so singularly lacked. By the end of the campaign, Labour was a revived and effective party. It was rewarded by a surge in votes that carried it to a 40% share of the ballots cast for the first time since 2001. Those who said Mr Corbyn was unelectable look foolish today. Although much uncertainty still exists about the party’s capacity to work together, Labour must try to do so. There must be a recognition that this is Mr Corbyn’s party now. Labour’s recovery is a shot in the arm for British politics, which have floundered during the party’s lean last decade of post-2008 eclipse.

Now, The Independent:

Now, having suffered the almost unthinkable ignominy of losing the majority she seemed certain to extend, Ms May’s first response shifted from the inane to the delusional. Speaking in Downing Street, the catchphrase morphed this time into “safe and secure”, and she repeated the need for “certainty”. She spoke about an agenda “for the next five years”, as though her position in the role were guaranteed beyond the next five weeks. There was no humility, no good grace; the Prime Minister seemed frankly divorced from reality.

The other politician who should be chastened by the election result is Nicola Sturgeon, whose hubristic call for a second independence referendum was almost as disastrous as Ms May’s decision to call a snap vote. Remarkably, it was SNP losses which kept the Conservatives from absolute catastrophe and it should be clear that Scottish independence is off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

For Labour of course, there is jubilation. The outcome is better than almost anybody predicted and has demonstrated once again Jeremy Corbyn’s ability as a campaigner with a human touch. It is clear too that left-wing policies can gain traction in modern Britain. After all, the Labour Party has not won 40 per cent of the popular vote since 2001 and did so this time with a radical manifesto.

Yet there remains a great deal for the party and its leadership to prove, especially as a parliamentary force. For all the immediate glee, Labour must not lose sight of the fact that it is still some distance from power – this election felt triumphal but it was not a victory. Mr Corbyn must now consider how he will both hold to account, and work with, the Government during the difficult period of Brexit deal-making ahead. If he can do that – and especially if he can also restore alliances with talented MPs in his own party with whom he has previously had differences – he may indeed make Labour electable.

And the Glasgow Herald:

 IF everything had gone according to plan for the Prime Minister, she should have been delivering a victorious speech on Friday about her increased majority and her mandate for a hard Brexit. But instead, the Conservatives lost their majority, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did much better than expected, and by Friday lunchtime Theresa May had been forced into a potentially disastrous coalition with the Democratic Unionists. So much for strong and stable.

Sadly, however, it would seem that Mrs May has not been listening to what the voters were saying at the polls – indeed, despite her calamitous performance, she appeared to go ahead and deliver her victory speech anyway. Her Government would provide certainty, she said, and govern for the whole of the UK. She also said she believed the country would come together and secure a successful exit from the EU.

It is entirely possible Mrs May actually believes some or all of what she said, but her speech in Downing Street underlines one of the reasons she had such a disastrous election. Mr Corbyn did well partly because he appeared to be authentic; he was saying what he really felt. Mrs May on the other hand kept repeating rehearsed phrases many voters knew to be false and she was at it again in her speech on Friday. Despite what Mrs May says, the country is not coming together. Brexit does not offer the prospect of a more prosperous future. And a cobbled-together government led by a damaged PM offers absolutely no hope of stability. Mrs May’s speech was a risible attempt to dress up defeat as victory.

As for Nicola Sturgeon, her response to the results on Friday contained a promise to listen to what the voters said and many of those concerned about the possibility of another independence referendum will welcome that. The SNP are still the biggest party and it has to be acknowledged that their success in 2015 was a remarkable event that would have been hard to replicate. But even so, the scale of the SNP’s losses were much greater than the party expected and are a serious, probably fatal, set-back to any plans for a second referendum.

On the back of her success, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said Ms Sturgeon should now totally rule out the prospect of a referendum but, having made it such a central issue in the last few months, it is hard to see how the First Minister could do that and retain her credibility. At the same time, keeping the possibility alive also creates problems for her – many thousands of voters were clearly voting against a referendum on Thursday and if Ms Sturgeon ploughs on regardless, it could damage her even more.

And let’s have a look at what some other people say. Such as Chris Johns in the Irish Times:

Another shock poll result and, like the Brexit referendum outcome, the search for simple explanations is an exercise in futility. It’s complicated. But keen observers of the UK political landscape noted throughout the general election campaign how Theresa May acted and sounded like a loser: the Conservatives’ tactics were spectacularly and mystifyingly inept. All through the campaign, May’s demeanour pointed to anything but a winning mentality. She was nervous, uncertain and stuck to her now infamous soundbites at a time when the the electorate was, for once, hungry for both detail and change. Her platform – ‘’sound and stable leadership” and “no deal [on Brexit] is better than a bad deal” – simply failed to resonate.

Two dogs failed to bark during seven dismal weeks of the most mediocre electioneering that most of us can recall. Brexit was hardly mentioned by any candidate: the most plausible explanation is that the British people, including most of its politicians, have finally realised what they have done. The penny has dropped: it is going to be a fiendishly difficult exercise with a highly uncertain, but probably disastrous, outcome. A vista too awful to contemplate so they stopped looking at it.

Theresa May will now try to form a minority government. An obviously second rate politician with the clock already ticking towards her demise. Another general election this year is a distinct possibility. Brexit negotiations will begin immediately and she will be sitting at a table where her opposite numbers, refreshingly crystal clear about their objectives, will sniff only weakness and uncertainty. The mandate for the infamous hard Brexit has failed to materialise but nobody knows what the British people have asked her to deliver. It is perfectly possible that she has no idea either. Her decision to treat with contempt the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted against Brexit spectacularly backfired. I’m willing to bet that a significant proportion of them tactically voted Labour, not because Corbyn has anything coherent to say on Brexit but quite possibly because they recognise there is now nothing good, or indeed coherent, that can be said about the decision to leave the EU.

The British may well have the politicians they deserve but they may be entitled to wonder just what they did that was so awful that resulted in the current generation of second-rate leaders.

And Fintan O’Toole:

So there’s only one queen in England after all.

The coronation of Queen Theresa is much more likely to be a decapitation. And the remarkable result of the election she called in the expectation of a triumphal procession raises the most fundamental question that can be asked in any state: who’s in charge here?

It’s not Theresa May, and it’s not anybody else either.

To understand what has happened you have to put together the slogans of the Sex Pistols and the royal family. The Pistols gave us anarchy in the UK.

The royals’ motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, which roughly translates as “Don’t mess about or there will be consequences.”

The British political class messed about with the Brexit referendum, and the consequence is, if not quite anarchy in the UK, a crisis of authority that has profound implications for Brexit itself.

And in all of this panic there has been a deep undermining of the idea of political authority.

Modern British history is all about the establishment of a bedrock political principle: authority comes from parliament. In its long nervous breakdown the Conservative Party has cut itself adrift from this principle.

In the Brexit debacle authority has come from two sources: “the people” imagined as the all-sovereign 52 per cent who voted to leave the EU, and the Daily Mail, whose far-right rantings have been May’s gospel. A constitution based on crude majoritarianism and fascistic denunciations of “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” is not a recipe for stability.

Both of these impulses have been firmly rejected. The British looked at the prospect of a virtual Tory one-party state and recoiled from it. And the hysterical smearing of Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour allies by the Mail and the rest of the Tory press failed.

But if it’s not “the people” conceived as a populist mass, and it’s not the propagandist press, who is in charge? More immediately, who has the authority to negotiate Brexit? In effect, no one at all.

What is blindingly apparent is that nobody knows what’s going to happen over the next few months, and that the Brexit negotiations just got an order of magnitude tougher.

Sorry to cut and run, but this is all I’ve got time for this week. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that the articles I’ve linked to all have further links to other stuff which you might care to explore, but as I said at the top, if you’re a Brit and you see the byline, you can virtually write the article yourself because they are all using the election result as proof of their personal theory about politics. In some cases, the stretching of the facts is very obvious, in others it’s a lot more plausible.

I’ll also remind you that today is the first round of the French Assembly elections, in which some people will be elected but in the majority of seats, today’s votes will simply determine who proceeeds to next Sunday’s run-off — which is likely to form the main focus of next week’s diary.


  6 comments for “British election breakfast

  1. JanF
    June 11, 2017 at 9:55 am

    Thanks for the roundup. I think the election may be too recent to draw any conclusions from it.

    It is ghastly to think about DUP having any power in any government on earth. I hope that the next election lends clarity.

  2. anotherdemocrat
    June 11, 2017 at 10:15 am

    Does it have to be the DUP? Aren’t their positions unpopular in England as a whole (anti-choice, anti-GLBT)? Isn’t May undermining Tory chances in the future, if they’re aligned with those guys? And I hate to think what concessions they’ll ask for, to be part of the coalition.

    • JanF
      June 11, 2017 at 10:46 am

      What I read suggested that they are the only party willing to connect up with the Tories – the other option is for Labour to try to cobble together a coalition but May, I think, gets first crack at it.

      The leader of the Scottish Conservative Party has 13 seats that she is holding over May’s head to bash her with should she make an unholy alliance with DUP that harms LGBT rights. I am not sure how the Tory-DUP alliance survives. Maybe Michael has some insight.

      • Michael Holmans
        June 11, 2017 at 12:52 pm

        They are the only party willing to do a deal with the Tories. How long it can last is anybody’s guess.

  3. WYgalinCali
    June 11, 2017 at 11:38 am

    Good morning, Michael. Thanks for the trilogy of diaries. I may be wrong in my assumption, but it doesn’t look like anybody won (contrary to those who think Labour did).

  4. bfitzinAR
    June 11, 2017 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks, Michael – off hand I’d say the UK is in almost as ungawdly a mess as we are. You at least have the possibility (not probability) of getting out of it sooner. Holding the Good Thought for us all.

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