Last week's General Election in the United Kingdom was a disaster for the new conservative government of Prime Minster Theresa May. Having called the unnecessary "snap" elections in order to strengthen her political hand, the result actually reduced the number of seats held by the conservatives and delivered large gains to the opposition Labour party, which had seemed in disarray just a few months ago. Although she has announced no plans to step down, her position has been severely weakened, possibly fatally. More pointedly, the UK's hand in negotiating favorable Brexit terms has eroded substantially. Besides creating significant ramifications for the European and global economy, the election also provides important lessons for the potential state of American politics.
In my mind, four main reasons explain the election. The first and most important was May's crucial misreading of British voter sentiment. Like the surprise election of President Trump in November, last year's Brexit Referendum revealed how deep anti-establishment sentiment has become. May failed to sense that this sentiment had shifted to her government which was seen, rightly or wrongly, as responsible for the country's current malaise including low economic growth, mass immigration and local terrorism.
Second, May displayed additional misjudgment when she suggested that health benefits for the elderly should be subjected to a 'means test' that would withdraw benefits from those who were considered well off financially. (5/17/17, The Guardian, R. Mason, H. Stewart & D. Campbell) This policy struck squarely at an important voting block at precisely the wrong time. Bumbled communications around the issue between the Prime Minister and Conservative Party allowed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to successfully label it a tax increase. May's eventual reversal on the issue made her look weak. Combined with her previously stating that she would not call a snap election, this lent credence to the rap song, 'Liar, liar' which went viral on social media.
Third, May underestimated how the youth vote had become a bigger factor in politics in the months since the Brexit referendum. Younger voters, who have been long cultivated by pro-EU propaganda, had nonetheless largely sat out last year's referendum, assuming that the "remain" camp would achieve an easy victory. (A similar dynamic depressed younger turnout in the U.S. when an easy Clinton win was assumed). The surprise outcome seems to have shocked that voting bloc out of its complacency. Young voters were further energized by Corbyn's promise of free education.
On a more tactical level May proved to be a weak retail candidate. She declined to participate in a televised debate with other party leaders and instead appeared as a remote and strict schoolmistress. By adopting such a profile, she was clearly hoping to emulate Margaret Thatcher. But unlike the Iron Lady, May could not run on a record of stunning domestic and international achievements. On the other hand, Jerry Corbyn, who I knew in the House, is a natural 'people contact' campaigner. On this occasion he excelled.
The Conservatives in the UK are known for ruthless infighting, and clearly the knives have come out. May's former Cameron cabinet colleague, George Osborne, who she had previously discarded from her own administration, said last week that, "Theresa May is a dead woman walking."
However, in view of the party turmoil and the increased uncertainty surrounding the Brexit negotiations, due to start next week, it may be thought unwise to use these sharpened knives in the short term. On the other hand, a possible majority of anti-Brexit or Remainer backbench MPs could force a leadership challenge in the hopes of scuttling Brexit at birth.
To counter this, May should consider enlisting the talents of the highly popular Nigel Farage by putting him in the House of Lords. As a leading Member of the European Parliament and the former head of UK Independence Party, which triggered and won the Brexit referendum, Farage knows the EU establishment better than almost anyone. He could assist greatly in the Brexit negotiations and help gain their acceptance in the Lords.