On June 9th, It’s Still May

June 9, 2017 - International Politics

Theresa May’s scheme to secure a massive majority mandate with a snap election has all but completely backfired on the UK Prime Minister. With the net loss of seats suffered by her Conservatives, May has held onto power by the skin of her teeth thanks to a deal brokered with the Democratic Unionist Party, whose ten seats will put her government at 328, two more than the threshold for governance.

The odd election, which saw 42% of the vote going to the Tories (who picked up 318 seats) and 40% going to the massively resurgent Labour party (translating to 261 seats), will do little to send a message to the Tories, save that they may decide in the near future to jettison May. With the DUP helping them avoid the consequences of a hung Parliament, the Conservatives will attempt to press on with the status quo, using their shared ideology to advance policy that won’t garner substantive debate from the DUP.

Major questions in the election included Theresa May’s austerity policies vs. Corbyn’s massive giveaways, and the nature of upcoming Brexit talks and negotiations with the EU. Corbyn is suggested to have pulled the rug out from under May, who had plotted to make this her “Brexit election,” by standing firmly pro-Brexit and changing the conversation to responsible handling of Article 50 talks.

It must be said that whether or not Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn hear the message, it appears to be resonating with voters across the UK: Neither party has made a sufficient case for majority governance. While Corbyn’s gains are not to be denied, 18% of the electorate cast votes supporting other parties, strongly enough that more than 1/10 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons were won by other parties. Both parties should take this as a wake-up call to discover who they aren’t reaching and why.

As to what comes next, it will hinge heavily on the price the DUP exacts from May for their support of her continued governance. While the two parties share positions on many issues, the DUP wants to see a “softer” Brexit and takes much more hardline positions on right-wing social issues – anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, deniers of climate change, and no fans of debating women’s issues.

The DUP, a Northern Irish political party whose 10 seats will make it the fifth-largest party in Westminster, now has a unique opportunity to push for its policy visions that would bring home the bacon for Ireland. DUP leader Arlene Foster has, however, asserted that the DUP recognizes its position in the new May administration and intends to look beyond the parochial – in other words, they don’t intend to ransom the government for investments in Northern Ireland, and will instead look to giving input in matters of general UK governance.

Looking ahead to the Brexit negotiations, more than anywhere else this is where the DUP will be guaranteed to throw their weight around – and where May could find herself in trouble, as she must wrangle both her own MPs and the ten-member bloc that keeps her dangling on the cliffside. The Northern Irish concern is that they will have the UK’s only land border with the EU once Brexit occurs (the Republic of Ireland is a member) and they want to ensure a “soft” border and continued ease of trade with the EU. For Tory hardliners who want the borders rock-solid, this will be a sticky negotiating point.

It remains to be seen what the Queen’s Speech will say about the state of governance in the United Kingdom, but for the moment the only thing that has changed is how Theresa May must now grapple with what she had hoped to sail through with ease. Furthermore, she’ll have to contend with her government effectively taking sides in Northern Ireland by dealing with the DUP, which has positions domestic to Northern Ireland proper that put it at odds with Sinn Féin and the SDLP. With ongoing mediation afoot in Northern Ireland to attempt to restore an administration there, May’s deal will invariably read as putting a finger on the scales.

The clock is now ticking to see what happens when the DUP and Tories begin talking frankly about Brexit desires and realities. With rumors of infighting already cropping up behind the doors of the Conservatives – anger turned toward their leader’s failed gambit – it’s quite possible the UK will see another election sooner rather than later.

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