UK election results: The Age of Blah has ended

Britain, Friday morning’s election results show, has marched decisively towards an impasse. The results also point towards deeper strains in the country’s polity.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi | Updated: June 9, 2017 3:59:14 pm
UK General Elections, Theresa May, Brexit, UK results Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the Conservative Party’s Headquarters after Britain’s election in London, Britain June 9, 2017. (Source: Reuters)

Sam Blackledge, the Plymouth Herald’s chief reporter, waited patiently in the cold drizzle at the harbour city’s fish market, watching as Prime Minister Theresa May “nodded earnestly at nets and buckets, leopard print heels click-clacking on the harbour floor”. Then, her public relations managers came through: Blackledge had the exclusive, one-on-one media coup he’d been dreaming of.

Blackledge ruefully recounted how he instead got “three minutes of nothing”:

Plymouth is feeling the effects of military cuts. Will she guarantee to protect the city from further pain? “I’m very clear that Plymouth has a proud record of connection with the armed forces”. How will your Brexit plan make Plymouth better off? “I think there is a better future ahead for Plymouth and for the whole of the UK”.

Britain, Friday morning’s election results show, has marched decisively towards an impasse. The results also point towards deeper strains in the country’s polity: between an older generation reluctant to be taxed to spend on infrastructure and public services, for example, and the youth increasingly restive about mounting debt; between rich and power; and between nationalists and European integrationists.

May’s leadership, which the Herald interview illustrated, had all the verve of a grouse run over by a road-roller, merely underlined these problems. These elections in fact mark the end of the Age of Blah, marked by the comfortable economic growth of the pre-global financial crisis years, when the dark arts of spin-doctors became the principal tools of politics.

Though many in the Prime Minister’s party, and some outside it, are now calling for her head, the larger crisis will be harder to solve than finding a new leader.

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When the dust settles, though, the Conservatives will likely discover that the news isn’t as bad it seems at first glance. That’s because a government doesn’t actually need to prove it has the support of a majority of MPs, only that no combination of MPs can form a majority against it. Britain’s Parliament has 650 MPs, which means the half-way mark is 326. In practice, however, the Conservatives only need 318 to form a government, because Parliament has nine non-playing MPs.

First, the Speaker and her or his three deputies do not vote. Then, Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party, refuses to sit in Parliament, opposes Westminster’s jurisdiction in Northern Ireland and won’t swear an oath to the Queen. The party has five MPs now.

Prime Minister May can easily reach 318—or even 326—with the help of the Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing formation from Northern Ireland. The party has had a working relationship with the Conservatives through the elections; the Conservative manifesto, moreover, already meets the DUP’s core concern, by promising there is “no question of joint authority” with Ireland over Northern Ireland.

The DUP has a number of views some in the Conservative party are likely to find unpalatable, like its opposition to climate-change mitigation and same-sex marriage. However, its big demand is likely to be greater integration with the British Union, through long-term funding of security and development. This, the Conservatives won’t find a big problem.

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Labour, despite the 31 seat increase that’s taken it up to 261, just can’t make the cut. Even with hypothetical support from the Scottish National Party’s 35 MPs and the Liberal Democrats’ 12, the numbers just don’t stack up.

Even with a government in place, though, the road ahead for the UK isn’t going to be easy. Brexit negotiations begin nine days from now, the the European Union seems determined to make an example of the country, to deter others who might want to walk out of the alliance. That means the United Kingdom won’t continue to have access to the common market unless it agrees to the so-called Norway option—that is, abiding to all EU rules, without the option of a voice in shaping them.

During his three decades on Labour’s left, Corbyn consistently opposed European integration and denounced the EU. Corbyn also stands committed to Brexit, and appears to have no clearer vision for future relations with the EU than the Prime Minister.

Put simply, the election means the Brexit negotiations will go on as planned—but with the risk of collapse. “With a weak negotiating partner, there’s a danger that the negotiations will turn out badly for both sides”, EU Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

For those within the United Kingdom, uncertainty lies ahead, too. May’s mandate to push forward with the Conservative economic agenda—further cuts in public services, for example—has undoubtedly been diminished. She is unlikely, however, to reverse course, especially as the economy shrinks in the wake of Brexit.

Corbyn, for his part, is certain to lead Labour into a programme of greater agitational confrontation with the government, a move that will help the party grow.

Labour had proposed hiking taxes on the richest 5 per cent of Britons to scrap university tuition fees, invest $315 billion in infrastructure plans and re-nationalizing the railways.

Hard times, it seems certain, lie ahead, with fissures of class and identity papered over after the 1980s resurfacing. The Age of Blah has ended—but the United Kingdom’s leaders do not yet have a new language to address the new times with.

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