“When William was our king declared,
To ease the nation’s grievance;
With this new wind about I steered,
And swore to him allegiance;
Old principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance;
Passive obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance”.
The Vicar of Bray
Alphen, Netherlands. 9 June. Well, that went well didn’t it? This week my car engine blew up in deepest France and lays forlorn in a French garage awaiting repatriation to the Netherlands. Yesterday, having called a snap election, Theresa May’s parliamentary majority blew up and she lays forlorn just short of an overall majority. So, what are the strategic implications of yesterday’s British General Election for Brexit, the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and for British power and influence in general?
Sitrep: On the face of it the result looks like a disaster for the Tories. It is clearly not good. As of 11 am this morning the Conservatives are the largest party likely to gain 318 or 319 parliamentary seats (down 12), 7 seats short of an overall majority, Labour is on 261 (up 29), the Scottish Nationalists have 35 seats (down 18), and the Liberal Democrats have won 12 seats (up 4). However, the results of two smaller parties in Northern Ireland could well hold the key to who holds power, and thus the keys to 10 Downing Street. Sinn Fein now hold 7 seats, but as Irish Republicans they never take their seats in Parliament, which in effect reduces the overall majority the Conservatives need to govern to 322 seats. This casts the 10 seat pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (the clue is in the party’s name) in the role of king (or possibly queen) maker. Or, to put it another way, the Conservatives could well gain a de facto majority albeit at the high price the DUP will undoubtedly demand, and one that is inherently vulnerable to alarums and shocks.
Brexit: It is now more likely that Brexit will be softer rather than harder with Britain in effect ending up in the European Free Trade Association. Next week formal Brexit negotiations will begin between Britain and the EU. Theresa May had hoped to gain a significant majority to strengthen her hand in what are going to be tough negotiations. That plan now lies in tatters. However, power in Britain is unlike any other European country. It is likely May (or some other Conservative) will form a government, and given that the DUP are for a hard Brexit, and given that the Fixed Term Parliament Act now aids the Tories, it is likely that the biggest danger to the British negotiating position will come from the pro-EU lobby within the Conservative Party itself. Equally, given the shock most Tory MPs have suffered overnight it is also likely that the threat of being seen to be divided will enforce some discipline. Perhaps the biggest Brexit challenge for the next prime minister, during what will be a minority government, will come from the unelected House of Lords (second chamber) which has an in-built anti-Tory majority.
The Union: A glance at the electoral map this morning suggests a shored-up Union with Britain, for the first time since Margaret Thatcher, beginning to look again like a genuinely united-ish kingdom. One of the many paradoxes of this paradoxical election has been the excellent performance of the Scottish Conservatives. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that Ruth Davidson and her Scottish Tories saved the UK Conservative Party from catastrophic defeat. For the moment at least the Scottish Nationalist are in full-scale retreat. However, there is a caveat to this analysis. Should the Conservatives fail to form a minority government and Her Majesty the Queen asks Jeremy Corbyn to form a coalition then the Scottish Nationalists would need to be part of that grouping and they would almost certainly demand Indyref2.
British power and influence: This election does nothing for Britain’s influence in Europe or the world. Britain is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world, a top five military power, and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. However, after three close elections and two destabilising referenda the British political and high-bureaucratic class is riven from top to bottom. This schism is reinforced by a British civil service that was politicised under Tony Blair and which now often leans to the left of the political spectrum. The result is that whilst Britain has an economy more than twice the size of that of President Putin’s Russia, London finds it exceptionally hard these days to leverage its fundamental power into strategic influence. That weakness will now continue and most likely worsen, which is something the US, NATO and other Allies will need to contend with.
Assessment: Yesterday was certainly a victory for British democracy. The turn-out was by British standards exceptionally high for a General Election, with people under 25 unusually committed. Prime Minister May is probably fatally damaged as she oversaw a shambolic election campaign which saw a hard left Labour leader achieve 41% of the popular vote. However, for all the shambles the Tories won the election with 44% of the popular vote, which in the past would have afforded her a healthy parliamentary majority.
Conclusion: For me, an Oxford historian, maybe yesterday was the day that after years of retreating from power Little Britain finally emerged. There will be a relatively weak Conservative prime minister in Downing Street at a moment when Britain needs strong and stable leadership. On those terms Theresa May has failed and must pay the price for her self-imposed failure. She will certainly never fight another election. One reason she failed was because she actually tried to tell the British people some hard facts of fiscal life during an election campaign. Millions of Britons told her they preferred the fantasy economics of Jeremy Corbyn. And yet, with the support of the DUP and a de facto 13-15 seat majority, expect the Conservatives to stumble on in government for some time to come.