Less than a year after its shock vote to leave the European Union, Britain faces renewed uncertainty after Theresa May’s snap election gambit resulted in a hung parliament.
Although the results leave the ruling Conservatives with the largest number of MPs, the failure to secure an overall majority signifies a rejection of Mrs May’s promise of “strong and stable leadership” for a country still divided by Brexit and the impact of years of austerity.
After starting the campaign with historically high ratings, the prime minister’s opinion poll lead was steadily eroded by an energetic Labour party campaign that focused on inequality and mobilised discontent against a decline in the quality of public services.
Mrs May’s attempt to run a presidential campaign backfired as a growing number of voters warmed instead to the more empathetic approach of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.
Perceived U-turns over policy commitments in her party’s manifesto suggested that she could be evasive and vacillating under pressure. Though she presented herself in the aftermath of the Manchester and London terror attacks as a leader who could be trusted with national security, she then struggled to defend herself against attacks on her decision to cut police numbers by 20,000 when she previously held the office of Home Secretary.
Although she has presented herself as a “one nation” leader reaching out to all sections of society, Mrs May has failed to win sufficient support from the voters have seen a precipitous decline in their living standards since the 2008 financial crisis. The anger of a fractured populace that led to the Brexit vote has partially resurfaced as a surge of support for Mr Corbyn’s pledge to boost spending in key sectors such as health and education.
By preventing the Conservatives from winning an overall parliamentary majority, Mr Corbyn has produced an unexpected turnaround that belies the consistently negative opinion poll ratings he received in the months leading up to the election. The Labour leader set out a highly controversial foreign policy platform that rejected the interventionist approach of his predecessor Tony Blair and argued that terrorist attacks in the UK were partially a consequence of ill-conceived meddling in Middle East countries such as Iraq and Libya.
In the face of highly personalised attacks by the mainstream British press on Mr Corbyn, his election machine countered by utilising social media platforms to engage potential supporters. An unexpected consequence of the Labour surge was the squeezing of support for smaller opposition parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. The result is a return to the traditional pattern of two-party politics that characterised the British political system for much of the post-World War Two era.
With potentially fraught negotiations with the European Union due to start later this month, the government must quickly recalibrate its approach to the talks. Assuming she survives as prime minister in the face of the electorate’s rebuke, Mrs May will be forced to moderate her secretive and autocratic policy-making style and accept much closer scrutiny from parliament and the public. Some ministers are already suggesting that the public’s verdict makes a “soft Brexit”, entailing a close relationship with Europe including continued access to the single market and customs, a much more likely outcome from the talks.
An increasingly conciliatory relationship with Europe is likely given the growing clouds obscuring Mrs May’s vision of a “Global Britain”. Ambitious trade deals for Asian and African countries sketched out by pro-Brexit ministers are providing little comfort to exporters keen to maintain access to the single market. A deeper Anglo-American relationship is also a dubious option for London, given what is perceived as Donald Trump’s erratic and impulsive foreign policy. The prime minister’s refusal to criticise Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the COP 21 climate accord jars with the condemnation expressed in Britain and around the world.
The slow-burning crisis of Brexit is likely to prove a distraction from closer involvement in regions such as the Middle East. While Mrs May wishes to deepen Britain’s already close relationship with the Gulf states on intelligence and military cooperation, her weakened domestic position will prevent her from pursuing a more activist policy in the face of domestic scepticism.
Although Britain will continue to support the anti-ISIL coalition and work with Western and regional allies to resolve the ongoing conflict in Syria, the government will struggle to overcome the newly empowered Labour party’s opposition to any escalation of military intervention in the region.
The apparently insurmountable political challenges faced by Britain both at home and abroad highlight the basic contradiction inherent in Brexit: while some “leavers” see departure from the European Union as an opportunity to renew Britain as a global power, others wish to retreat into an idealised version of “Little England” as a protection against the disruptive cultural and economic changes wrought by globalisation. Like other Western countries, the UK is now subject to a stark division between those who favour a “closed” country emphasising nationalism, protectionism and migrant restrictions, against those who support ‘openness’ through multiculturalism, internationalism and free movement.
In seeking to cultivate a nationalist constituency, Mrs May has seen her personal political credit severely depleted given the sharp divisions among the British electorate.
Her appeals to patriotism have come across as shallow and cynical given her inability to present a substantive blueprint for the future or reassure voters weighed down by austerity.
While the government has sought to assuage domestic disenchantment by promising to fulfil the Brexit mandate, the prime minister’s failure to enlarge her parliamentary majority suggests that she will struggle to overcome the political turbulence that is sure to continue.
Stephen Blackwell is an international politics and security analyst