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May fights for survival after Brexit ballot gamble backfires

Jun 09 2017 11:13
Tim Ross, Alex Morales and Thomas PennyTim Ross, Alex Morales and Thomas PennyTim Ross, Alex Morales and Thomas Penny

London - Theresa May was battling for survival as Britain’s prime minister after her gamble to call an early election backfired spectacularly, casting doubt over the government’s make-up as well as the direction and timing of negotiations on leaving the European Union.

Both May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn laid a claim to govern after the election resulted in a so-called hung Parliament, where no one party commands a majority. With May facing calls from her own party to quit, the BBC reported that she has no intention of resigning.

May opted for a snap election to boost her parliamentary majority and strengthen her hand in the Brexit talks due to begin in just 10 days. Instead, her Conservative Party was on course to win 318 seats, down from the 330 she held at the start of the campaign and short of the 326 seats she needs for an overall majority. Labour will take 261 seats, a gain of 29 seats, according to BBC projections.

Speaking in the early hours of Friday, May signalled that she will try to form a government to ensure some certainty. Corbyn later made his own bid to govern, saying that Labour was “ready to serve this country.”

While fresh elections remain a possibility, the most obvious route to continued Conservative rule would be to form an alliance with Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party. It’s still far from clear whether May will be able to hold on and lead the UK into talks with the EU that will determine the country’s future prosperity.

“At this time, more than anything else, this country needs a period of stability,” May said in her electoral district of Maidenhead, west of London, her voice at times shaking. “If, as the indications have shown, the Conservative Party has won the most votes and the most seats, it will be incumbent on us to ensure that period of stability and that’s what we will do.”

The pound tumbled the most since October as investors were confronted with another spasm of political turmoil less than a year after Britain voted to quit the EU, its biggest trading partner. 

May called the election seven weeks ago expecting to win a landslide, but instead managed to squander the commanding lead she enjoyed at the outset with a gaffe-prone campaign that focused in large part on her vision of a post-Brexit Britain outside the EU’s single market.

That “extreme version of Brexit” was rejected by voters in Thursday’s election, according to Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s Brexit spokesperson.

Rubbish bin

“I think hard Brexit went in the rubbish bin tonight,” said George Osborne, the former chancellor of the exchequer whom May sacked after he played a leading role in the campaign to remain in the EU.

The pound dropped as much as 2.1% and was trading at $1.2739 at 10:23. The FTSE 100 Index was up 0.5%.

The election result is another reminder of just how disillusioned voters are with the political establishment in Europe and the US following Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the implosion of France’s main parties in the presidential election.

“Politics has changed and politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before - because what’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics,” Corbyn said after retaining his seat in north London, and called on May to quit.

Must go

“The prime minister called the election because she wanted a mandate, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support,” the Labour leader said. “That’s enough to go.”

The Scottish National Party is on course for 35 seats, down from 56 in 2015, and the Liberal Democrats may get 13, up from 8, the forecast showed. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party won 10 seats and the Irish Republican party Sinn Fein won 7 seats.

One of the biggest surprises of the night came when the constituency of Canterbury, which has been held by the Conservatives for more than a century, fell to Labour.

Ben Gummer, who co-wrote the Conservative manifesto and was tipped to become Brexit secretary after the election, lost his seat in Ipswich, eastern England. Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader, were also defeated.

Whether or not May manages to stay on, her party’s best option looks like governing with the support of the DUP. 

“We need to wait and see what decision Theresa May takes on her own future and then we’ll reflect on it going forward,” DUP leader Arlene Foster told Sky News. “What we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union.”

John McDonnell, Labour’s spokesperson on financial affairs, said in a BBC interview that his party could form a minority administration and pass legislation on a case-by-case basis. He argued that the election showed the popularity of Labour’s policies and Parliament would not stand in the way of implementing them.

Corbyn’s appeal

One of the campaign’s revelations was the success of Corbyn, who had been dismissed as unelectable by some members of his own party at the start of the campaign. He rode out the criticism, holding open-air rallies at which thousands - including many young people who had not voted before - cheered his message of ending austerity and abolishing college tuition fees.

May, who promised “strong and stable” leadership, had a disastrous election. She reversed a policy on care for the elderly - dubbed the “dementia tax” by Labour - when it proved unpopular and refused to appear in TV debates with Corbyn. Opponents denounced her as “weak and wobbly.”

May also tried to exploit terror attacks on Manchester and London to expose Corbyn’s perceived weakness on security and his past associations with supporters of the Irish Republican Army.

“She needs to consider her position,” said Anna Soubry, an anti-Brexit Conservative lawmaker. “It’s a dreadful night. I’ve lost some remarkable friends.”

The election throws up major questions about Brexit. Talks with EU leaders are due to start in less than two weeks and those meetings may now need to be delayed, further eroding the time that Britain has to clinch a deal before it leaves the bloc in March 2019.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, offered some space, saying in a tweet that the talks “should start when UK is ready.”

It will also be difficult for the next UK leader - whether it’s May or someone else - to argue that they are speaking for the entire nation after such a bitter and divisive campaign.

And even if the Conservatives retain power, the Brexit agenda could be set by lawmakers who campaigned for the cleanest break with the EU, limiting the room for May or her successor to make concessions.

“This is not an election campaign which has healed divisions across the country in the way it needed to,”  Nicky Morgan, a Tory former education secretary, said in a text message. “The Conservative Party has some hard questions to ask itself.”

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theresa may  |  uk  |  brexit  |  uk elections  |  economy
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