Hanging by a Thread: The United Kingdom and its Future following the Snap General Election
By: Injae Lee
In the weeks leading to the snap general election that she had called for, Prime Minister Theresa May of the Conservative Party promised that she would bring “strong and stable” leadership to Great Britain. The United Kingdom, having been rocked by two turbulent referendums in the last few years, seemed anything but united and was in sore need of the leadership that May promised. However, as the election neared, liberal newspapers oriented to the opposition Labour Party mocked May’s slogan and her party’s platform, and “strong and steady” became the meme that stole the election (along with a caped individual wearing a bucket who ran in May’s constituency). Then, the people went to the polls on June 8 and delivered a rejection of the Prime Minister and her campaign. In the stunning election result, the Conservatives lost 13 seats - and their solid majority - with Labour gaining an unforeseen 30 seats. The shocking election resulted in a hung Parliament - a parliament where no party controls the majority of seats and thus cannot form a majority government. With May’s “strong and stable” leadership more likely to now be “weak and wobbly,” the future of Britain, its government, and its status as a leading world power are more uncertain than ever before.
The most immediate question still unanswered by the election is the future of the British government. When the Prime Minister called for a snap election in 2017, the Conservatives were in power with a solid 330-out-of-650-seats majority, May enjoyed high approval ratings among the people, and Labour, the opposition party, seemed to be all but finished. The Labour Party, which had opposed Brexit, had lost much of its working-class voter base (which supported Leave) and was slumping in the polls, while its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was widely regarded as incapable of leading his party to victory. All that changed after the election. May and the Conservatives remain in power but only in a severely weakened minority government. On the other hand, with 30 new seats, Corbyn and Labour have been completely revitalized, with the Leader of the Opposition growing in power and solidifying his position within the party. There have even been rumors that yet another general election may be called for, most likely as an attempt to form a new majority government - resulting in Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. To solidify her weak hold in Parliament, May has been forced to resort to dramatic measures. In late June, the Prime Minister announced that she had reached a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to form a de facto coalition government. Although the ten seats of the DUP will give her the majority in the Commons, May’s new coalition has proved highly controversial. The devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales have taken offense that the government promised an additional £1 billion (approximately $1.3 billion) to the Northern Irish government as part of the agreement and are now demanding that Parliament promise more funds to these countries as well. Many more are also outraged that the Conservatives have made a deal with the DUP, which is considered far-right and has adopted controversial stances, such as an anti-LGBTQ agenda. There are also rumors that factions in the Conservative Party, outraged by her handling of the election and her deal with the DUP, are considering ousting May from office. May’s removal would trigger a leadership contest and result in not only in a new leader, but a new Prime Minister. With the ongoing turmoil in the House of Commons, May and the Conservatives are on shaky ground, and another change of government will not surprise many in Britain.
The United Kingdom’s so-called “Brexit” negotiations have also been thrown into uncertainty by the general election. Theresa May’s stance on Brexit since her ascension to the office has been that “Brexit means Brexit.” This policy means that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union, as it voted to last summer, with no second referendum and with as little delay as possible. While both the Conservatives and the opposition Labour party follow this policy, their stances diverge on the type of Brexit that they advocate for: hard Brexit or soft Brexit. The Conservatives are working for a hard Brexit, where the United Kingdom would completely withdraw from the customs union and from the open-border European Single Market in order to have full control over its borders. Labour advocates for a soft Brexit, one in which the United Kingdom leaves the E.U. and its single market, but maintains some form of access to the market and continues to have important trading links in the E.U. - an arrangement with the Union similar to that of Norway’s (Norway has no say in E.U. affairs, but maintains access to the market). There are many people who support neither option, while the third-largest party in the U.K., the Liberal Democrats, simply want to stay in the E.U and cancel Brexit. Thus, it is unlikely that the United Kingdom will manage to pull off a complete, hard Brexit. May’s fragile alliance with the DUP and her minority government means that she will have to assume a more moderate stance on many policies regarding Brexit to appease the opposition. However, the opposition itself hasn’t made things any easier for May. When she invited them in July to engage in two-party talks to create policies for Brexit, Labour quickly rebuffed her offer, leading to wide ridicule of May in the press and a further slip in her approval ratings. The government’s weakened stance and its faltering momentum also has not gone unnoticed in the European Union. As talks commence in Brussels, former Foreign Office diplomat and chief of staff for the European Trade Commissioner Simon Fraser has stated that May’s negotiations are failing to work in her favor and that Brussels holds most of the cards on the table. Unless May has an ace up her sleeve - which seems ever more unlikely - it seems that the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations will hardly go in the direction desired by the Britons who had voted Leave in the first place.
Theresa May may have campaigned for a “strong and stable” government, but if anything, the British government seems more “weak and wobbly” than ever. With the United Kingdom’s government in gridlock, its negotiations with the European Union faltering and its leader in a precarious situation, it seems that the future of Great Britain is anything but great.
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