Less than two months ago, Prime Minister Theresa May stood on the steps of Number Ten and announced that, despite repeatedly ruling out a general election in the wake of the Brexit vote, she would go to the country on 8th June to secure a strong mandate for Brexit, and to strengthen her hand in negotiations with the European Union.
She was wrong.
Far from increasing the Conservative party’s small majority in the House of Commons, a 20% opinion poll lead was overturned and the majority was lost. The Tories limped home with 318 seats, 8 short of the required 326 to take a majority in the Commons. In one of the worst election campaigns in living memory, Theresa May and the Tories sought to prioritise the personalities of the leaders, launching a vicious and relentless character assassination on the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, while bizarrely hiding the Prime Minister away from the media firing line.
And far from strengthening her negotiating hand ahead of the EU talks, Theresa May completely pulled the rug out from under the United Kingdom, and any hopes of a ‘strong and stable’ government were wiped away. You could almost hear the laughter from Brussels as the results came in.
If they got one thing right, the Tories realised just how toothless and lacking in personality Theresa May really is and kept her out of the spotlight as much as possible, and on the few occasions she did square up to the media and the general public, she came off badly. Very badly.
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn went about his business, producing a popular manifesto and campaigning on those issues. Personal attacks were off-limits, and he sought to engage the younger voters who had failed to lend their voices and support at the ballot box in the EU referendum This time around, they were engaged.
There was probably far too much to do for Labour to win this election outright – a hung parliament, where they were the largest party, was about the best they could have hoped for. Their pre-election refusals to do deals with other minority parties might well have been revisited had that happened, but the Tories took enough seats to remain the largest party and are now in negotiations with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
Never mind the huge (catastrophic?) strain this might put on an already brittle peace process in the province, Theresa May is demonstrating that far from acting in the national interest, as we were repeatedly told during the election campaign, her first and only thoughts are clinging to power and acting in the interests of the Conservative party. She was right when she warned about a ‘Coalition of Chaos’ depending on the election result; she just never imagined that she would be front and centre of said coalition.
It remains to be seen how any agreement with the DUP might work, or the very serious risks it poses to the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the sitting UK government must remain neutral in the politics of the province. Shacking up with the terrorist-sympathising DUP is most definitely NOT a neutral position, a fact not lost on the Republican-leaning Sinn Fein, who may yet consider finally taking their seats at Westminster after decades of symbolic refusal.
The rights and wrongs of the Tory/DUP alliance are too detailed for discussion here, and could easily be debated until the end of time. Only time will tell whether such a coalition will work at all for the UK, or for how long. But what is clear is the fact we are going into the Brexit talks with nothing – no strong and stable leadership and no mandate from the British people on what kind of Brexit we should be seeking.
The talk of ‘Hard’ or ‘Soft’ Brexit is surely disingenuous. As Theresa May herself has kept on repeating, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – we are in a club and we have chosen to leave. There can be no cherry-picking of the membership privileges we wish to keep; we cannot have our cake and eat it. The EU will not allow this, as to do so would set a dangerous precedent for any countries wishing to follow Britain out of the exit door in the future.
Although it is clearly in the EU’s interests to organise mutually beneficial trade terms and other financial benefits, they cannot be seen to be weak or to be encouraging other members to go it alone. The EU will not seek to make an example of the UK, nor will they agree to benefits and concessions which should only be available to member states.
Leaders with a stronger mandate than the newly-formed British government would have had an almost impossible job securing a reasonable and relatively painless exit from the EU. A minority Tory government, propped up by hard-line conservatives from a tiny corner of the UK which actually voted to remain in the EU, has no chance. Unless they reach out to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists and seek a cross-party consensus on Brexit, they have no chance.
If she is not prepared to do that, Theresa May should stand aside, or call another election to try and secure some certainty. Either way, Theresa, it’s called ‘leadership’. Maybe you should try it some time?