Mayhem as May’s polls gamble backfires
There is an old saying that those who dare win. Some attribute the saying to Winston Churchill. Whether it was Britain’s wartime Conservative prime minister who originally said this or not, it matters not. Britain’s Theresa May put it to the test when she called a snap election and dared the nation to give her the parliamentary strength to negotiate the country’s exit from the European Union.
Instead two days ago the British voters hung her out to dry. They presented her with a hung parliament, her Conservative Party losing the slender parliamentary majority it held and finding it eight seats short of a working majority. By the time you read this the immediate clouds surrounding the political situation here would have cleared somewhat. As you know by now Theresa May is back at No 10 and probably like Achilles sulking in her Downing Street ‘tent’ wondering how she and her closest team mates could have misread the situation so badly.
Readers would know by now that May met the Queen on Friday afternoon and said she had the parliamentary numbers to form a government. What might not be generally known is that though a majority in the 650-member Commons is 326 this is not entirely accurate because of the position taken by Sinn Fein, the political arm of the once- militant IRA responsible for several murderous attacks in Britain. Though Sinn Fein contests the British elections those elected do not attend sittings of the British parliament.
After Thursday’s election Sinn Fein has seven seats in the Commons which will not be occupied and so the computation changes when it comes to parliamentary voting and what constitutes the majority. But the horse dealing I said in last Sunday’s column that would follow a hung parliament is only beginning. Even if May has struck a temporary arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland which has consistently stood for continued union with England, to prop up her government by lending its 10-seat support, there must surely have to be a quid-pro-quo.
It is difficult to believe that the DUP has not indicated already that it wants its pound of flesh and probably from where the flesh is to be cut. Theresa May is no Portia to argue that the pound of flesh has to be taken without shedding a drop of blood. May’s crass miscalculation about the mood of the British people and calling an election when there was no valid political reason to do so, does remind one of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s error of judgment in calling for a presidential election two years ahead of time, probably after listening to the advice of his brother Basil and his astrologer.
So why and how did May go so horribly wrong? One reason was that she was tempted by opinion polls. The huge lead she was shown to have over the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour opposition led her into believing that it would be a cake-walk if she called an election. She believed that a new Labour leader, reviled by many of his own parliamentarians would be no electoral match for the Conservatives.
Secondly May considered herself an electoral asset and turned the campaign into a presidential-style one pitching herself against Corbyn who was seen as an outdated Leftie and unfit to lead the country. Her campaign speeches and appearances always emphasized the “I, myself and me” style and approach to the exclusion of other cabinet ministers and prominent Conservative party supporters who were hardly if ever seen on the campaign trail.
Her appeal to the voters was to give her a mandate rather than ask for one to strengthen the negotiating position of the government in the negotiations due to start with the EU on their divorce proceedings. While she claimed credit for the manifesto, she was the first to ditch a key proposal in it and tried to hide the U-turn she had made on social care by claiming that “nothing has changed”. This proposal drove fear into many elderly conservative supporters who were now beginning to doubt May’s sincerity and credibility.
An ageing British society was increasing dependent on social care and enhanced national health and the intended cuts that the May manifesto seemed to propose were turning traditional Tory voters to question the justification of some of them. However much May wanted to keep the campaign on the Brexit issue, Corbyn and his Labour manifesto was concentrating on everyday issues that concerned society as a whole. Corbyn proposed nationalisation of some public utilities such as rail services, he targeted the youth who had for years felt disenfranchised.
The manifesto popularism promising free tuition fees and lunches for students Corbyn the veteran Leftist, he energised the youth and student populations. A look at the election results would show that Labour scored heavily in university towns. Many of those who attended Corbyn’s rallies were youth.
Also an important asset for Labour in conveying its messages and enthusing the youth was the resort to social media which was quicker and cheaper than the traditional ones. While the right-wing mainstream media especially tabloids like the Sun and Daily Mail tore into Corbyn resurrecting his support in more youthful days for the IRA, Hamas and his opposition to the Iraq war and Libya, he appeared more sincere and truthful under questioning and scrutiny by the media and public.
May on the other hand appeared to lack that sincerity and honesty. She seemed evasive dodging media debates or waffling under questioning. Rather than being the steady hand on the tiller that she claimed she would be Theresa May appeared indecisive and weak, a bad campaigner on the whole.
The political debate was compounded by two terrorist attacks that immediately swung the campaign in a new direction with Labour blaming May and the Conservatives for cutting funds to the police and having less police on the streets. Caught on the wrong foot May tried desperately to shift the debate back to Brexit. But there was a fault line there too. A little less than half voted at the referendum to remain in the EU.
So when the polls came those who voted to remain in the EU struck back in what one might call the Remainers’ Revenge. Even such strong Conservative seats as Kensington has gone to the opposition. While minorities in Britain generally voted for Labour or Lib Dems this time there were additional reasons why they voted heavily in favour of the parties they traditionally supported.
Corbyn’s manifesto promised many amenities and social benefits across the board including freeing many families from taxes and other financial burdens. They were essentially bread and butter issues that concerned people going through years of Tory austerity. Most of the Sri Lanka community appears to have supported Labour to judge from the enhanced votes that went to Labour in constituencies with concentrations of the Sri Lankan diaspora.
In addition to the traditional support for Labour there seems to be an additional reason why Sri Lankans of the Tamil community, voted Labour. It was a letter that went out from Corbyn about a week before polling addressed to “Our Dear Tamil People” emphasizing his full support for the right to self-determination for Tamils and the right to determine their future by democratic means including referenda.
Corbyn wrote that the Sri Lanka government would be expected to implement the resolution passed in 2015 by the UNHRC which sets out measures like the establishment of a fair and impartial tribunal to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of war crimes.
In writing about Corbyn, the London-based Tamil Diplomat publication tells its readers “You would have seen him in all the struggles you held in London. The Labour government will put human rights and international law at the heart of our foreign policy”.
One wonders whether those mandated to follow, analyse and report to our Foreign Ministry trends and developments have alerted Colombo of what could prove to be a thorn in bilateral issues if the Labour Party came to power here. Those who have little or no understanding of political developments and issues might dismiss out of hand the possibility of Labour in government. That would be foolish given the highly volatile political situation right now.
The more percipient observers and those who cultivate politicians of all parties and political journalists would know that such political turn-arounds cannot be ruled out. In fact we have come close to it. Right now such a possibility cannot be ignored because the May government is skating on very thin ice. It will not be surprising at all if Theresa May has to hold another election sooner or later and before the five-year term is over.
If that happens Labour is almost certain to come to power given the political; mood swings of the British public right now. Given Corbyn’s political stances in the past and the promises he has made the “Eelam Tamils” it would be quite natural for him to follow the foreign policy postures he has outlined.
One hopes that our Foreign Ministry will not be caught napping by a Labour government in power because some have fallen down on their job. It was an extraordinary election where the public was presented with starkly contrasting visions for the UK in the next decade or two. It would be a tragic mistake if smaller countries like ours hoping to negotiate separate trade deals misread the current and emerging scenarios and leave Sri Lanka as vulnerable as the post-election government in power here.
The country is badly divided- between parties, between the old and young and between Brexiteers and non-Brexiteers. The election results show the UK returning to two-party politics and the regional and minority parties losing their way.
While this is a longer term view of what could be the political landscape this election has produced a weakened and damaged prime minister with her authority diminished. She might stumble along in the coming weeks. But how long could this go on and how long would the country take it?