The future of UK politics, Brexit negotiations, and transatlantic values has been thrust into uncertainty following the UK snap election on Thursday night. The hung Parliament will require a coalition, but the Conservative Party’s most likely partner will seek concessions on Brexit and possibly on social issues. Here are the facts you need to know:
1. Theresa May lost seats but will remain prime minister – for now.
Prime Minister Theresa May called the special election on April 18, sensing disarray among her rivals and seeking a personal mandate to strengthen her hand during Brexit negotiations. That backfired badly.
Before the election, the Conservative Party held a slight majority of 330 seats in the House of Commons, which it would have maintained until 2020. As of this writing, with one seat yet to be decided, the Conservative Party had won 318 seats – eight short of the 326 needed for an outright majority. The parties actually need 322 seats to form a working majority, since Irish separatist Sinn Fein’s seven members will not take their seats in Parliament out of protest. After meeting with Queen Elizabeth II on Friday, May announced that she will seek to form a coalition government with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party (DUP), which won 10 seats. Whether May will survive as prime minister for the long term remains an open question.
The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn significantly strengthened its hand. It won 261 seats, a 29-seat increase, and boosted its share of the vote by 9.5 percent. If May cannot form a coalition government, then Corbyn – who has called on May to resign – would have the opportunity to do so. He has already said he wants a vote on his economic manifesto. But a coalition with all other parties except Sinn Fein – the Scottish National Party (35), Liberal Democrats (12), Plaid Cymru (4), and the Green Party (1) – would give him only 313 seats.
Should no party form a government, there would be another national election, the UK’s fourth in three years.
2. The election affects Brexit negotiations, which begin in 10 days (and possibly social issues)
May hoped to enter Brexit negotiations, which are scheduled to begin June 19, from a position of strength. Instead, her future remains under a cloud. European Commission President Donald Tusk chided her that the deadline for negotiations will not change, even if the UK is unable to settle on a government. “Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations,’” he tweeted.
The coalition with the DUP will require concessions to her negotiating posture. While May has regularly said “no deal” is better than “a bad deal,” the DUP opposes a hard Brexit. Northern Ireland shares an open border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and has said it wants neither a hard border nor quasi-member status in the EU.
Furthermore First Minister Arlene Foster has said it is “critical” to the Irish “private sector, but also to the public sector employers” to retain access to “skilled labour and unskilled” labour from the EU. Yet controlling migration from the EU was a core principle behind public support for Brexit.
The DUP strongly opposes abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage but favors some stronger welfare state policies than the Tories, potentially pulling the government to the Right and Left simultaneously.
3. Campaign rhetoric on cutting welfare programs hurt May - badly.
When May called the election, polls showed the Tories 21 points ahead of the Labour Party. How did the tide turn so dramatically? Largely public backlash against campaign rhetoric on welfare spending.
When May called on elderly Britons with assets of £100,000 to pay the full cost of their medical care, Corbyn dubbed the proposal a "dementia tax." Facing massive backlash, May – who campaign promising “strong and stable” leadership – partially backed down.
Likewise, May pledged to means-test the “free” school lunch program for students in the first three years of school, and offer “free” breakfast for every child in every year of primary school and an increase in overall education funding. Tory officials privately groused that, instead of campaigning on the increase, the cuts – and the wording of the Tory manifesto – allowed May to be dubbed the “lunch snatcher.”
Even terrorist attacks in the campaign’s waning days allowed Corbyn to highlight the reductions in the number of police, furthering his campaign against May's alleged “austerity” policies.
4. Scottish independence and UKIP are casualties.
Scottish voters decisively rebuffed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to hold a second independence referendum. The SNP, which won 56 of 59 seats in 2015, claimed only 35 seats on Thursday. Conservatives added 12 seats by campaigning against “indyref2.” At Bute House, her official residence, Sturgeon said Friday that her party “will reflect on these results. We will listen to voters.” That is good news, as the economic consequences of the SNP’s interventionist policies have been unfortunate.
At the same time the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a prime instigator behind the Brexit referendum, collapsed. UKIP lost its one MP, Douglas Carswell. Party leader Paul Nuttall came in third in his constituency. While conventional wisdom held that UKIP voters would support May’s “hard Brexit” language, an even number supported the Labour Party on economic grounds. Nuttall resigned as UKIP leader on Friday, and Nigel Farage has already signaled his interest in returning to the party’s helm.
5. Young people are increasingly attracted to the far-Left.
As in the United States, the UK’s youngest voters fueled the rise of a far-Left politician. Corbyn, who has been called the UK’s Bernie Sanders, saw much of his vote increase come from those under the age of 25. (A series of celebrity endorsements did not hurt youth turnout.) According to one estimate, 66.4 percent of voters aged 18 to 24 cast ballots in Thursday's snap election, a 23 percent increase over 2015. Another assessment has the turnout lower but shows that younger voters supported Corbyn’s Labour Party over May’s Tories by a margin of two-to-one.
Young people’s increasing support for wealth redistribution may be the most disconcerting of all last night’s election results.
(Photo credit: Garry Knight. Public domain.)