UK: Two failed gambles within two years

Eyad Abu Shakra
Eyad Abu Shakra
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Sooner or later stubborn denial will fall when facing reality. Thus, when the British Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority in the snap early general elections they called, even lose safe seats like that of affluent Kensington in central London, they need to acknowledge the hard facts.

The most important of these facts is that twice within two years a Conservative British prime minister gambled on the mood of the electorate, only for the gamble to backfire and throw the country in a government crisis.

Last year, British voters opted to leave the European Union in an unnecessary referendum. Panic-stricken by the rising popularity of the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and hoping to silence once and forever anti-EU wing within his party, former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron promised to conduct a referendum on leaving or ‘exiting’ Europe.. a.k.a. Brexit!

However, Cameron’s gamble spectacularly and unexpectedly failed, as a majority voted to leave, made up of Leftist ‘protectionists’ and ‘neo fascists’ and Rightist ‘isolationists’ and ‘old fascists’.

In the light of this result, Cameron resigned, and was succeeded as prime minister by then Home Secretary Theresa May. But no sooner had May taken office and announced her readiness to start the Brexit negotiations, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) – who had just narrowly lost a referendum on Independent Scotland – rose against May, and declared that they had every right to have a second referendum on Independence, since the majority in Scotland voted in favour of remaining in the EU.

In the meantime, almost all major British political parties were going through a period of upheavals, and attempting to redefine their priorities and highlight their distinguishing stances.

The Conservatives were becoming more clearly divided between the skeptics and the hard-core ‘Brexiteers’; and while there was a broad hope of papering over party divisions, many truly believed the internal dispute over Europe within the party would never end with a referendum.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the scene inside Labour, the main opposition party, was looking even more exciting. The hawkish Left was now imposing its hegemony at the expense of moderates ever doubtful of the ability of the Leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn to lead Labour back to power. Like the Conservatives, Labour has been deeply divided over Europe too; and further divisions have been emerging between youth and pensioners, educated groups and blue-collar workers, traditional working class strongholds in northern England and the Welsh valleys … and the new Labour urban strongholds in southern England.

The scene within the centrist Liberal Democrats may be less dramatic than its two larger competitors, but still LibDem activists were hopeful that their new leader Tim Farron would turn the page of their disastrous 2015 electoral defeat, and benefit from Labour slide further to the left by attracting moderate and ‘liberal’ Labour supporters.

Her [May’s] aim was to have a fresh personal mandate that would strengthen her hand nationally and in the Brexit negotiations, as well as enhance her own leadership of the Conservative Party. However, on June 8 her gamble failed miserably, ushering a most probable political demise.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Last but not least, across the English-Scottish borders, the SNP was busy putting pressure to bear for a second Independence referendum under the leadership of the young dynamic Nicola Sturgeon, who took over from her former boss Alex Salmond, who had resigned the SNP leadership after losing the first Independence referendum.

Outside the UK, the overall political scene last year was no less exciting.

US presidential campaign

The US witnessed two astonishing phenomena during the presidential campaign: the rise of right-wing and left-wing anti-globalization political populism, and weakness of the political ‘establishment’ which led to its failure in confronting the rise of populism.

Indeed, Donald Trump not only managed to secure the nomination of the Republican Party against the ‘establishment’ candidates, but later won the presidency upon defeating the Democratic Party’s candidate Hillary Clinton, a former Secretary of State.

The Democratic Party, in turn, witnessed how Senator Bernie Sanders, a Leftist Jewish politician in his 70s who was not even a party member, succeeded in gaining around 40 percent of the votes during the Party’s primaries, thanks to Leftist populist slogans that energized the younger generations and secured their backing.

A similar scenario was repeated in France, where the presidential candidate of the two ‘establishment’ parties of the Right (the Republicans / Gaulists) and Left (the Socialists) failed to reach the final election round, decisively won by a youthful Emmanuel Macron, who had just left the government of the Socialist President Francois Holland, his mentor.

Macron’s movement

Macron has built his election machine through his ‘On the March’ movement, and is through the momentum of his movement currently redefining French politics.

All the above-mentioned developments seem to have been missed by Theresa May when she gambled on snap elections only one year into her first term in office. Her aim was to have a fresh personal mandate that would strengthen her hand nationally and in the Brexit negotiations, as well as enhance her own leadership of the Conservative Party. However, on June 8 her gamble failed miserably, ushering a most probable political demise.

The Conservatives have lost their absolute majority, and are now seeking the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, the ultra-Right Protestant party in Northern Ireland, for her temporary ‘minority government’ until the dust settle and a new Conservative leader takes over.

As for Labour, although it lost, it did manage to widen its appeal and add to its parliamentary seat, doing very well in Southern England and Wales; which has enhanced Corbyn’s reputation and his Leftist calls that attracted the youth, mobilized them, and brought them in droves to the ballots.

On the other hand, as the Liberal Democrats improved their performance compared to 2015, the biggest losers – next to the Conservatives – were the SNP and UKIP.

The SNP lost more than one-third of its seats (dropping from 56 to 35 seats) including that of its former leader Alex Salmond, and had its hope of a second Independence referendum dashed after its popular percentage of votes plummeted to less than 36.9 percent.

While UKIP, originally a single issue party, paid a heavy price for the fulfillment of its objective of leaving Europe. It failed to win a single seat, as a result of former voters returning to their original parties, mainly, the Conservatives; and almost immediately its leader Paul Nuttall resigned before any political postmortem.

One last thought.

The UK is really changing. It is changing at a faster pace even that its politicians think; which may go a long way to explain their failed gambles and adventures.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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