Bigger Than Brexit? The U.K. Electorate Shocks the World … Again - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Bigger Than Brexit? The U.K. Electorate Shocks the World … Again

Bigger Than Brexit? The U.K. Electorate Shocks the World … Again

By James Watkins


Because the pollsters were wrong … again.

By James Watkins

Well, who saw that coming? It looked like there would be only one possible outcome from yesterday’s U.K. election — an increased Conservative majority. The only question was just how big. And then …

It seems the British electorate had become a little too accustomed to the global spotlight over the past few years and decided it was time to steal the headlines once again. The overall result may seem to be a damp squib — Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party was unable to achieve an overall majority in parliament. The Labour Party are 60 or so seats behind, but given the prominence of several smaller parties — including the pro-independence Scottish National Party — it surpassed expectations enough to prevent the expected coronation of May’s all-conquering Conservatives. As it turns out, in a so-called “hung parliament,” the path forward is unclear — perhaps a Conservative-led coalition with a smaller Northern Irish party or a shaky minority government, both of which would involve the Conservatives relying on others to force through crucial legislation.

But make no mistake: Despite these inconclusive results, this is a political earthquake that perhaps outstrips Brexit in its impact and suggests that the electoral upheavals that have shaken Europe and the U.S. in recent months show no sign of stopping.

Corbyn secured a share of the popular vote that would have been sufficient to earn victory in many previous elections …

And now, after the utter embarrassment of announcing an election with hopes of increasing her majority to 100 seats or more, originally sitting on a 20-something-point lead in the opinion polls but ultimately seeing her existing majority totally destroyed, May may soon be packing up her belongings from 10 Downing Street. Whether later today, this week or in a few months, the U.K. may soon need to ready itself for yet another new prime minister. 

Brexit? What Brexit?

Without a majority, the Conservative agenda appears threatened. Though the Tory campaign sought to keep the debate focused squarely on the overused and now widely ridiculed phrase “strong and stable leadership” to steer the country through the terrorist threat and Brexit negotiations, the surprisingly successful Labour Party campaign of firebrand leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn kept the electorate’s focus on domestic issues and its popular (and, indeed, populist) left-wing manifesto: a near-doubling of the minimum wage, the renationalization of key industries and increased taxes on the wealthy. 


Some Conservative insiders remain positive. Despite their underperformance yesterday, “they do [still] have the endorsement of their manifesto” as the overall largest party, says Matthew Elliott, Conservative political strategist and former chief executive of the successful Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum. There is no chance that the election result will hold up the Brexit negotiations, Elliott tells OZY, although some determined pro-Europeans have already floated the idea of trying to derail, or at least modify, May’s hard-line Brexit agenda.

Is May Done For?

A week before the election, University of Sussex professor Paul Webb told OZY that May should “expect the knives might come out in the next two or three years” should she win a majority of less than 50 seats. Without a majority at all, even Conservative candidates and talking heads were appearing on late-night broadcasts to suggest that May’s position as prime minister may now be immediately untenable.

All this may well usher in a return to the same turbulent uncertainty that immediately followed last summer’s Brexit referendum and David Cameron’s resignation, as potential successors line up to challenge for the party leadership — ironically, of course, the complete opposite of the stability that May originally sought from this election.

And here’s something no one was predicting before last night — the term “Prime Minister Boris Johnson” may now be a slightly less fanciful joke than it once was. The farcically eloquent, professionally unkempt, unashamedly buffoonish Brexit-backing Johnson was initially the front-runner to succeed Cameron. After the tumultuous events of last night, Johnson, who is currently foreign secretary, saw his odds of succeeding May narrow to just 3–1, according to one U.K. bookmaker.

Boris Johnson

Exit Theresa May. Enter … Boris Johnson?

Source Barcroft Media/Getty

In addition to Johnson, Home Secretary Amber Rudd has been a key surrogate for May in election debates, and Scottish leader Ruth Davidson, who pioneered a rare hopeful Conservative story in her corner of the U.K., is also rumored to be in the running. That said, “I don’t think there’s a particular appetite for a leadership election when we’re on the eve of the start of Brexit negotiations,” says Elliott.

Corbyn’s Left Revolution

The biggest story of this election, though, may be the vindication of Corbyn’s radical vision for the Labour Party, not the capitulation of May. Corbyn didn’t win, not even close, but the extent to which he exceeded expectations will be seen as nothing short of a resounding victory. In a shock wave that will be felt in left-wing parties across Western Europe and North America, Corbyn secured a share of the popular vote that would have been sufficient to earn victory in many previous elections. The British public views Corbyn as farther left on the political spectrum than Donald Trump is to the right, Andrew Hawkins, chairman of polling organization ComRes, told OZY last week. And yet both populist leaders, dismissed by the establishments of their own parties, surpassed all expectations.

And if far-left Corbyn is, in a bizarre twist of logic, the British Donald Trump, then one thing is for sure: Theresa May is most certainly the British Hillary Clinton. 

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