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Saturday, 10 June 2017

Election gamble blows up in the face of British PM Theresa May. Or how settling for an insecure coalition cabinet with a stronger opposition could become a blessing in disguise for the UK as a whole.

British Prime Minister Theresa May of the conservative Tory party had it all figured out: with the extremely tough Brexit negotiations with the European Union ahead and with the Labour party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, seemingly flat on its back, it seemed like an appropriate time to organize national elections in the United Kingdom.

According to her plan, these national elections would act like a two-edged sword.  When she would indeed have the sound victory based upon an absolutely majority that she anticipated, she would acquire a stronger mandate with respect to the EU negotiations and it would also rub her adversary Jeremy Corbyn deeper in the dirt of his own incompetence, she figured.

With the Tories as absolute majority leaders in parliament and Labour lying in tatters, she would be energized to take the tough stance against the EU that she deemed necessary to carry out the best possible results from these negotiations.

Things went... a little different:

The Tories won the elections by a small and non-decisive majority of  58 seats (319 seats against 261 for Labour, according to the latest polls) and they saw Labour gain a quite impressive 29 seats, in comparison with the last elections.

When one takes into consideration that Labour under the “clumsey leader” Corbyn seemed a lost cause  and that May seemed on her way to a landslide victory only a few weeks ago, it is clear that things went horribly wrong for Theresa May.

And the remarkable thing is that neither the Brexit nor the terrible terrorist attacks of the last few months in the United Kingdom seemed the direct smoking gun, with respect to this strongly disappointing election result.

The terrorist attacks – terribly brutal and vicious as they were – were of course condemned by all parties and it was not that the policy of either the Tories or Labour would have led to a different outcome. Besides that, all three attacks (i.e. the two in London and the one in Manchester) were executed by people living in the UK for a long time or even all their lives, so even the most restrictive policy regarding immigration would not have stopped these terrorist attacks at all.

To put it even stronger: the perpetrators were perhaps all part of the United Kingdom’s colonial heritage and not a consequence of the unhindered immigration of the recent years.

And the Brexit was not even the elephant in the room in the prelude to the elections. As Bernard Hammelburg, the savvy Dutch correspondent for Foreign Affairs of BNR Radio stated (if I recall him correctly): “the Brexit itself as an event hardly played a role in the British elections. The Brexit was a thing from the past, upon which all the important, gamechanging decisions were already taken. It was especially the unclear economic outlook and the feeling that not all would be hunky dory within the British empire after all, that drove the people – especially the youngsters – towards Corbyn’s Labour party”.

BNR Newsradio Foreign Affairs journalist Bernard Hammelburg
Picture copyright of: Ernst Labruyère
Click to enlarge
Whatever the reason was: fact is that the whole plan of Theresa May to improve her position via these elections blew up in her face.

Instead of having an absolute majority of at least 326 seats, she ended somewhere south of 320 seats. In order to find a workable majority directly after the elections, May called in the help of a Northern Irish splinter group: the Unionist Democratic Party. This party is far more populist and conservative than even the Tories would like to endorse. Nevertheless, calling in the help of this party seemed the only way in which she could continue her governmental plans at short notice.

This means that due to this UDP party participation her hands could be tied with respect to all kinds of political hot potatoes, like the Brexit (the difficult choice between a soft and hard Brexit), the open border with Ireland, immigration and the economic development in all the countries within the United Kingdom.

And on top of that she seems to have lost the confidence of many youngsters in the UK, in favour of Labour with its leader that initially “nobody wanted” and that really nobody among the powers-that-be took serious in the beginning.

Corbyn was considered a basket case, with a totally outdated political view that came straight from the Eighties of last century: a political Catweazle [Catweazle was the name of a fictious wizard from medieval times, who was transported to the 20th Century by a failed spell – EL]. 

But the tides have turned for both PM Theresa and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn...

So what can Theresa May do, now it is probably not possible to maintain her tough stance against the EU (i.e. “a Brexit on our terms or else... no deal!”), as she is now stuck somewhere between the desires of a now very powerful Northern Irish splinter group, a strongly divided Tory party and a Jeremy Corbyn with much more power than before and with the momentum going his way?

Perhaps the best solution would be to grind off the sharp edges of her current Brexit-related policy by diluting it here and there with a dash of mildness and a spoon of compromise and humility. She knows that she has to take three totally different opinions into account (Labour, Tories and UDP) in order to get anything through the parliament in the coming years. 

She can’t always trust the hardliners within her own party for automatically voting in her favour, so she must be able to find a broader compromise than she did before.

In other words, she has to take Labour’s desires also into account to a certain degree and stick out a hand towards the man that she probably dislikes more than anyone else: Jeremy Corbyn. Will she be able to do that? Who knows?!

I think the best she can do, is creating a compromise that nobody loves, but nobody hates either. A compromise that is in the best traditions of Dutch politics with its outrageous number of (small) parties and its long, long history of coalition cabinets, that were always a difficult marriage between sense and emotion.

And probably, when Theresa May grinds off the sharp edges of her Brexit policy, the EU is also willing to abandon their plans to punish the UK for trying to leave the EU.

The toughest nut to crack will be the immigration issue, as well as the free traffic of capital, citizens and goods and services. However, even in these formerly non-negotiable areas of EU policy there might be a small opening.

Immigration already has turned into the hottest potato within the EU itself and the member states are already discovering that unlimited free traffic of citizens (i.e labour) has a series of serious drawbacks that cannot simply be ignored by the powers that be.

Politicians start slowly to discover that the EU citizens become more and more fed up by the EU’s neoliberal policy of the last thirty years, because it largely ignored the sense of security and financial / economic stability that almost every citizen requires, in order to have a decent living and raise a family in relative prosperity. That could mean a chance for the UK in the coming negotiations.

However, the most important factor will be whether Theresa May is able to sing a different tune or not? Will she be able to show the EU negotiators a little more humility than before, when she made it seem that she held all the cards and the EU leadership had to sing to her tune in the Brexit negotiations.

Even though the UK is still very much a stronghold in the financial and commercial services industry and not all financial companies are automatically choosing to leave London after the Brexit, May must understand that the UK still needs the EU more than the EU needs the UK after the Brexit. It is simple as that.

The UK is in my opinion quite vulnerable in the areas of agriculture, manufacturing and heavy industry, as well as the exports of manufactured goods, as the island cannot and will not be self-supporting in the coming years.

In some industrial areas, like the steel industry, the country still suffers from obsolete and hopelessly inefficient plants, that are no match for the cunning and efficient German industries or the heavily subsidized Chinese industries with their dumping of steel and other semifinished products. And nobody can eat or drink financial services alone.

So finding a viable and feasible compromise in the prelude to the Brexit can be a lifesaver for the UK in the end. The decision to start the Brexit can probably not be withdrawn without a massive British loss of face, but the way that it happens is very much in the capable (?) hands of PM Theresa May.

And then, this outcome of the elections, even though it will be a tough lump to swallow, could be a blessing in disguise: both for Theresa May and for the United Kingdom as a whole. And they can be a good chance for the EU to show a more friendly and humane face as well. 

A British mandate that takes the interests of more people into account is probably a better mandate in the end.

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