U.K. General Election: The Winner Takes… Nothing?

Rajan Manickavasagam
Rajan Manickavasagam/Flickr

British politics over past few years has been anything but boring. Last week’s general election proved to be no exception. While there were some who expected a Labour victory and more who expected a landslide Tory majority, probably few foresaw the actual outcome—the most unfortunate for the United Kingdom and one that threatens to weaken the nation’s influence in the world.

Winning the most seats, the Tories emerged victorious, yet their victory was overshadowed by concerns and disappointments. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are rejoicing in his success, oblivious to what otherwise would be an upsetting loss.

But has there been any real victory at all? If so, who is the winner, and how will it impact British foreign policy?

Corbyn’s victory seemed to be of a personal nature: he defied skeptics within the Labour Party and claimed over thirty seats more than Miliband did in 2015. However, Corbyn did not win the election, and more people in the country still want to see the Conservatives in power. For Theresa May, it was a pyrrhic victory: her party, her status within it, and the country as a whole emerged even more chaotic than before.

The sobering reality is that a hung parliament is probably the worst election outcome possible. The pound fell, though not as much as it did after the Brexit vote. Theresa May’s leadership position is increasingly unstable; no one would be surprised if, in the weeks to come, we hear talks about a new leadership bid. There is no reason to believe that whoever would replace her—most likely Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd or David Davis—would be stronger or more stable.

And of course there is Brexit. With a hung parliament, the U.K. is now in the worst possible position from which to negotiate a new exit deal with the European Union. The Conservative Prime Minister will be held on a leash not only by her informal coalition partners the DUP, but also by all the other parties, who are now capable of blocking any unsatisfactory bill. Any failure in Brussels will need to be brought home for another vote, which suggests that the entire process will be more laborious and time-consuming than it would have been had Tories won a majority. Already a couple of months into the two-year negotiation period, time is what the U.K. cannot spare. Not to mention that minority governments historically tend to be unstable and, unfortunately, short-lived.

If that weren’t enough, internal chaos is likely to attract foreign threats, including potential terrorist attacks. It might also give Russia the fuel they need to perpetuate a narrative of a divided and unstable Europe. It’s also likely to impact the country’s alliances. Who knows what the United States will make of their seemingly weak and unstable partner. With Trump’s state visit on hold, that alliance already seems shaky. Moreover, if Labour were to have a bigger impact on the new government, Corbyn’s anti-Trident and anti-NATO stance is unlikely to go down well with the U.S. and European allies.

Post-election U.K. is a stark contrast to both a stable Europe and its leaders—especially Macron and Merkel. They are doing what May does not seem to have the political will to do: strengthening the EU’s normative stance by outbalancing both Putin and Trump, renewing the focus on climate change, and deepening multilateral anti-terrorism action. More than that, the Franco-German power axis seems to be reforming the EU from within.

Of course, there is a brighter side to all this: British politics is likely to become more moderate if Theresa May wants to pass any legislation. She will need to soften her line not only with the DUP but also with the rest of the parties in Parliament, especially Labour. Additionally, May has now lost a mandate for a hard Brexit. The Tories will not have ownership of the negotiations, and all parties are likely to chip in to seal the best deal for Britain—if there is one.

May tried to play hard power games, but her loss proved to be a victory for liberal and open European politics. In the long term, a “softer” Brexit and stronger institutional EU politics may be the only real winners of the election. But this will only become clear once the Brexit talks gain momentum in the months to come.


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