British Political Miscalculation and Rebellion, the Sequel

On June 23, 2016, I stared intently at my computer screen late in the evening and began to realize the magnitude of what I was seeing: Prime Minister David Cameron’s political gamble on the Brexit referendum had failed. The United Kingdom had voted in favor of leaving the European Union.

Fast forward almost one year. Again, I am staring intently at my computer screen late at night shaking my head in disbelief: Prime Minister Theresa May’s political gamble to hold an early election and gain a strong majority has failed. The Conservative Party has lost its majority in the British Parliament by a handful of votes.

Two major voter miscalculations in less than a year.

Here is a quick guide to the 2017 political and economic damage assessment.

A year ago, the markets were caught totally by surprise by the referendum outcome. The pound sunk. The same is happening now, but the drop is from a much lower level so it is not quite as impactful.

A year ago, David Cameron took responsibility for the referendum loss and resigned in 24 hours. Theresa May has already visited the queen to seek approval to form a government with the backing of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but it is unclear in what format. All eyes will be on Theresa May to see if she will accept personal responsibility for the loss of her majority and a poorly run campaign or whether there will be a leadership challenge within the Conservative Party. If Prime Minister May continues, she will be a much weaker leader and will need to alter her leadership style. This seems to be an unstable political option.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, was considered unelectable less than a year ago, having survived multiple leadership challenges from within the party. His unexpectedly well-run campaign has made Corbyn a political Lazarus. Ironically, it was a year ago that David Cameron told Jeremy Corbyn to “just go, man” and resign as Labour leader. On June 8, it was Corbyn’s turn to tell Theresa May to resign. The speed of these changing political fortunes is simply staggering and speaks to the democratic volatility within Western democracies.

During the last general election in 2015, the Scottish National Party (SNP) made impressive electoral gains at Labour’s expense. This time, SNP suffered losses due to a combination of Labour, Liberal Democrats, and most significantly, Conservative gains. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of SNP, who has insisted on a second independence referendum, will have to reflect seriously on her next political steps. She will contemplate them without her deputy leader, Angus Robertson, who lost his seat.

Voter turnout was higher than the last general election in 2015 despite voters’ unhappiness with returning to the polls so soon after the referendum. Young voters played an important role in Labour’s success: whereas young people registered to vote during the referendum largely did not turn out, this was not the case in 2017—exit polls suggest turnout among those under 35 years old was up 12 percent compared to 2015.

In 2015, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) received 13 percent of the popular vote. They have been electorally destroyed by this election.

The Liberal Democrats, who demanded a second Brexit referendum, have made slight gains but will not be as decisive a political factor as they were in 2010 when they entered into a coalition with the Conservatives.

The election outcome in Northern Ireland is troubling. Sinn Fein and the DUP made gains in Northern Ireland to the detriment of the two smaller, more moderate parties who did not receive any seats. This is not good news for Northern Ireland’s attempts to form a power-sharing executive over the next two weeks, for the sustainment of the Good Friday Agreement, or for discussions related to border issues between the United Kingdom and Ireland during the Brexit negotiations—an already highly complex issue made more complicated by the election.

Finally, where does this leave the Brexit and the United Kingdom’s negotiation with the European Union, which was the reason Theresa May called the election to strengthen her hand in the negotiations? Simply put, we have no idea. Some suggest that the negotiations are now in a state of chaos; others see a more positive outcome that could allow the United Kingdom to remain in the EU Customs Union or even the Single Market. Negotiations in Brussels were set to begin on June 19. While Theresa May seems to hint at keeping the talks on track and on time, it is unclear whether she can form a government and go back to business as usual in 10 short days. If there is a Conservative leadership challenge or if there are significant changes to cabinet positions and negotiating postures, this may cause a delay in the negotiations that will last over the summer—further running down the clock on the two-year negotiating window. A softening of British demands may not lead to a reciprocal response from the European Union. If anything, the European Union could harden its views to demonstrate to other members the cost of departure.

The election result should be a cautionary tale to future British prime ministers. It appears that when a prime minister seeks the support of the British people for a chosen political course, popular opinion rebels against what the governing elite desires, but it is unable to give clear political direction on a different course. Perhaps a respite from elections or referendums for the foreseeable future is the wiser course of action, for the cost of political miscalculation and subsequent popular rebellion has simply become too great.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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