Could This U.K. Election Be Bigger Than Brexit?

Could This U.K. Election Be Bigger Than Brexit?

Why you should care

Could Brexit be just the beginning for political upheaval across the pond?

Last year’s Brexit shockwave dominated front pages around the world for days, but as Brits head back to the polls this week in the wake of three separate devastating terror attacks in recent weeks, the 2017 general election has caused barely a blip. In fact, the most viral moment of the campaign thus far stemmed from Brenda of Bristol’s response to learning about the snap election: “Not another one! For God’s sake!” Echoing the sentiments of much of the British public, as well as those worldwide fed up with the whims of Britain’s electorate, Brenda sighed with exasperation. “I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment.”

While Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May was hoping to shore up her democratic mandate (and her parliamentary majority) going into Brexit negotiations, the last thing most Brits wanted was another grueling campaign cycle that might reopen the wounds of the referendum. But in reality, says Paul Webb, professor of politics at the University of Sussex, “it’s funny how little Brexit has featured” in the campaign. It’s certainly present, he says, “but it’s not as dominant as I thought it would be.” Instead, the 2017 campaign has proven to be one of the most dramatic in recent political memory. Only the country’s political numbness after two great political shocks — the surprise Conservative victory in 2015 and 2016’s vote to “Leave” — means this election feels relatively tame.

If there’s a landslide, Theresa May will be seen as all-conquering.

Stephen Fisher, professor of political sociology, Oxford University

Over the past seven weeks, a vast Conservative polling lead of up to 20 points over the Labour Party has collapsed to just single digits. “Movements during campaigns don’t tend to signify much, but this election is testing that rule to destruction,” says James Tilley, an Oxford University politics professor. And add to this wild last-minute swing an ideological gap between the two major parties last seen in the 1980s — while Team May is pledging an agenda not wildly dissimilar from the centrist consensus of the last couple of decades, Tilley says, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn is pledging a renationalization of the country’s mail, rail and energy industries.

Though the tightening polls are more volatile than usual, and it remains unclear what, if any, effect the recent terror attacks will have on voting intentions, most commentators agree that a Conservative victory remains by far the most likely outcome. There is “absolutely no chance” of any other result than an increased Conservative majority, says Andrew Hawkins, chairman of ComRes, a leading polling organization. The election is “unwinnable for Labour,” he says. “They’re staring down the barrel of a gun on June 8.” The question is just how big May’s increased parliamentary majority will be. So what will the near certainty of five more years of Conservative rule (on top of the seven years under former Prime Minister David Cameron) mean for the U.K.?

Tory Britain: Five (or 10) More Years?

The biggest Conservative proposals aren’t particularly world-changing: A continuation of the education revolution that removed most schools from local authority oversight, as well as a reintroduction of Thatcher-era selective “grammar schools”; a potential overturn of the fox-hunting ban, which attracts controversy not for its real-world consequences but for its symbolism of a class-divided political history; and a more interventionist approach to business in terms of capping energy bills and limiting excessive corporate pay.

Fox hunt protest

Overturning the ban on fox hunting is one of several Conservative policies that has not been received well by the electorate.

Source NurPhoto/Getty

Of course, a certain six-letter word will loom over the next parliament even more than the nine-letter word austerity defined the last seven years of conservative rule. Yes, Brexit is still an ever-present part of the political discourse. The domestic-policy battles that have defined this election season may all prove inconsequential: “It’s not clear how much legislative space is going to be in the parliamentary agenda for things not associated with Brexit,” says Webb. And further headwinds remain: The resurgence of fervor for independence in Scotland and the threat of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a result of Brexit could rekindle nationalist fires in another constituency too.

Queen May or Troubled Theresa?

May’s mix of social conservatism on issues like immigration, combined with a relatively left-of-center stance on certain economic issues (the energy-bill-cap policy is borrowed from Labour’s former leader), might align better with the heart of the British electorate, Webb says: “If she manages to pull that off, she’s in a very strong position for years to come.”

Critical to May’s success will be the scale of her win. “If there’s a landslide, Theresa May will be seen as all-conquering,” says Stephen Fisher, an Oxford University political sociologist, noting how her brand of conservatism will likely dominate for years. But initial Tory dreams of May’s majority rising as high as 100 (a level of parliamentary dominance not seen since the height of Tony Blair’s popularity) now seem unrealistic. “If it turns out only to be a moderate set of gains, that will be seen as a failure on her part,” Fisher continues. In fact, Webb warns that if May’s majority is less than 50, “she’s got to expect the knives might come out.” She would hardly be the first Conservative leader to win a general election only to get kicked to the curb by her colleagues, he says. Case in point? None other than Margaret Thatcher. As for Labour, Corbyn may well “be able to hold on” to his party leadership should he outperform his predecessor’s 2015 vote share, says Fisher — ironically, a closer-than-expected victory for May might mean that the defeated party leader survives longer than the victor.

What If …?

While all the pollsters and pundits rest assured that the only question worth asking is the size of the victory, we’ve heard all that before. Corbyn’s hard-left manifesto has been received well by the electorate, but his lack of control over his parliamentary party, his historic ties to groups like the IRA and Hamas, and his long-held pacifism and commitment to nuclear disarmament have raised concerns about his own personal leadership in a time of great uncertainty as the country heads into Brexit negotiations.

So should we wake up on the morning of June 9 to yet another unexpected result, the scale and consequence of that political earthquake might be just as profound as those that came before.

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