The U.K. Election: What Happened?

Published June 13, 2017

When, earlier this spring, British Prime Minister Theresa May dissolved Parliament and called a snap election, it appeared that her ruling Conservative Party was destined to rack up an even bigger, and overwhelming, majority in the House of Commons.

Recent local elections had shown that supporters of the U.K. Independence Party were migrating [back?] to Conservative ranks;  the early spring polls showed that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was distrusted everywhere in England;  and polls then also showed that, in Scotland, where Labour’s traditional base of support had been heavily eroded by defections to the Scottish National Party, not only would Labour not recover but votes might also shift from the SNP to the Conservative Party.

Meanwhile, although not originally an advocate of Brexit (British withdrawal from the European Union), Mrs. May had thrown herself vigorously into the execution of Brexit, declaring firmly that there was no going back, and doing the necessary, systematically, to make Brexit happen:  Creating the required administrative infrastructure (including creating an entire cabinet department, headed by a cabinet-level secretary, devoted to the task);  moving the necessary legislation;  taking on the inevitable litigation in the courts.  Again, the early polls showed that strong majorities of British voters supported her in all this and respected her for it.

When the dust settled after last Tuesday’s parliamentary elections, Mrs. May’s commanding position had been swept away.  Britain was left with a “hung parliament” (one in which no one party controls a majority in the Commons and, so, some degree of coalition government is thereafter necessary to put or keep a prime minister and cabinet in place);  for the first time people were seriously looking at Jeremy Corbyn (who, by comparison, makes Bernie Sanders look temperate, thoughtful, free-market-oriented, and sane) as credible prime ministerial timber;  and Mrs. May’s cabinet colleagues were openly talking (see the report in The Sunday Times this morning, linked and set forth below) about a need to change leaders of the Conservative Party (and, thus, require a new Prime Minister).

Although it appears that, in fact, the Conservatives have enough of a plurality in the House of Commons that, supported by Northern Irish Unionists (who typically align and vote with the Tories any way), they will be able to form a government, the message is hardly the resounding vote of national public confidence that Mrs. May sought as the British head into their departure negotiations with the European Union.

What happened?

Some pundits, who see everything through American left-liberal lenses, read the results as (a)  a referendum on Donald Trump (Mrs. May, who has had polite meetings with the President, seen as the stand-in punching bag);  (b)  an opportunity to cheerlead for Bernie Sanders (with Mr. Corbyn as the stand-in);  and  (c)  a chance to express buyer’s remorse over the outcome of the Brexit referendum (which left statists on all sides of the Atlantic and the English Channel with queasy feelings in the pits of their stomachs, and which they’d very much like to reverse, one way or another).

I offer a few alternative explanations:

(1)    Mrs. May and her team made the all-too-frequent mistake made by incumbent conservative governments that the secret to expanding voter bases is to shift left and crowd out the opposition.  This is nearly always an unsuccessful strategy, for two simple reasons:  First, it dilutes the conservative “brand” — the message of less government, lower taxes, fewer regulations, more freedom, and more competition.  Second, it sets up an auction that conservatives can never win:  Why would voters who want socialism choose “socialism lite” when they can have the real thing?

Yet this was the tack that Mrs. May’s Conservatives took, as spelled out in the Tory Party’s 2017 election manifesto (platform).  Interestingly, the principal author of Mrs. May’s 2017 manifest was a cabinet member, Ben Gummer, who held a safe Conservative seat in the House of Commons;  his local voters rewarded him for his manifesto by sending him packing, costing him both his seat in Parliament and his seat at the cabinet table.

(2)    Islamic terrorists intervened in the election, with the terror attacks in Manchester and London just days before voters went to the polls.  Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and allied Islamic extremists have successfully used this tactic before, as in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, coming just three days before scheduled elections for the Spanish parliament.  Prior to the Islamicist attack in Madrid, the incumbent Spanish conservative party (the Partido Popular) was coasting on its way to reelection;  after the attack voters shifted suddenly to the opposition socialist party (the Spanish Socialist Workers Party), firing the conservatives and electing a socialist government.  Why?  (a)  Voters were unhappy that the incumbent government seemed to be incapable of protecting citizens in the homeland;  and (b)  the attack was seen as retaliation for Spain’s support of its NATO ally, the United States, in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The perception was that the socialists couldn’t be worse and providing security and, besides, the soclalists were committed to thumbing their noses at the Americans, which might buy Spain a pass from the Islamicists.

Was a similar logic at work in the minds of the British electorate last week?  I think it’s likely.  Before becoming Prime Minister, Mrs. May had been Home Secretary, the cabinet officer responsible in the British system for homeland security.  Security issues should have played to her strengths;  instead, successive attacks over just a few days, conspicuously aimed at civilians (indeed, mostly young girls at the Manchester concert), suggested that the incumbent team wasn’t up to the task of protecting the people.  In addition, the Islamicists have always been very clear in all their pronouncements and rhetoric that their main enemy in the world — the “Great Satan” — is the United States.  What better way to put distance between oneself and the USA (and its lightning rod President) than voting for the socialists?