Friday, 23 June 2017

This Conservative government is hostage to fortune like never before

British prime minister Theresa May on election night 
 (Photo: Sky News)
The results of the recent British general election have plunged the ruling Conservative Party into a crisis of confidence that could ultimately see them lose office.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was – I would argue – right in calling the poll. Where she went wrong was in how the campaign was conducted. The manner and style was not in sync with how the majority of the public were feeling. ‘Strong and stable leadership’ was Mrs May’s mantra but this message failed to connect with the voters. The dementia tax and other harsh social policies in the Conservative manifesto helped draw a picture of an uncaring and tightfisted government led by a robotic prime minister who wasn’t in listening mode. Contrast that with the performance of Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader displayed humility and decency where this was absent in his chief opponent.

Many – including this writer – predicted that the Conservatives would win and that Labour would be badly defeated in June’s poll. This didn’t happen, largely because the government failed to prepare sufficiently for the ensuing campaign. The assumption was that voters would return the Tories with a larger majority and that the opposition would be torn asunder.  As we now know the Conservative Party no longer enjoys a majority in the House of Commons and find themselves in a minority position – but still in government – needing the support of some other MP’s (at time of writing the Conservatives are trying to stitch together a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party).

This is not how things were meant to turn out back in April when Mrs May called the vote. It came as a great surprise to me when I first heard that the PM wanted to hold the general election. Everyone was caught off guard - even some cabinet ministers seemed to have no idea of what their leader was planning. The Conservatives seemed to have a big advantage and therefore one couldn’t understand as to why Mrs May had not gone for an election sooner. Everything was perfectly poised when she announced her intentions on the steps of Downing Street. What could possibly go wrong? We were about to find out.

One of the first things that struck me about Mrs May’s announcement was the length of the campaign. A seven week duration seemed far too long. The risks must surely increase the longer a campaign lasts, I thought to myself. Surely the Conservatives, given their commanding position in the polls (some had predicted that Mrs May would return to parliament with a majority of over 100), would have been better off snipping the campaign to three weeks, thus minimising the risk factor? A long campaign, such as the recent one, gives greater opportunity to the opposition, something no governing party should allow.

During the month of May I travelled to Brazil for a family holiday. Before leaving for South America I pondered the election campaign. A terrorist outrage could occur at some point. I shuddered at the thought. Very sadly this awful thought proved true and there were in fact two horrible terrorist attacks before Polling Day. On another day, while driving through the streets of Sao Paulo, my mind was drawn back to the ongoing election campaign back in the UK. What if Mrs May were to have a reversal in fortunes? What if the result gave her a smaller majority than anticipated? I asked myself these questions repeatedly for a few hours and then thankfully my mind went back to more pleasant thoughts.

What I and others failed to realise was that there was a growing resentment among large swathes of the British public at the policies of this Conservative government. The failure of the latter to realise this fact has now put Mrs May and her party in a very difficult position. Not only did they fail to attract votes from Labour supporters but the Tories also lost votes from liberal Conservative supporters. Several Conservative MPs (Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke among them) have criticised the way in which the governing party ran the campaign. The focus should have been on the economy, they have said. Ah yes the economy of which more later.

The results of GE 2017 mean that the Conservative programme of government will have to be cut drastically. The government – and Mrs May – will have to be a good deal more conciliatory in their approach during the upcoming parliament. Any more strident ambitions will have to be forgotten. By the end of the summer the Conservatives will, in all likelihood, have chosen a successor to Mrs May. The vicar’s daughter is now too much of an electoral risk and she will have to be replaced before the Party goes into battle at the next significant poll. The chief candidates to replace her are probably the following: Boris Johnson MP (current Foreign Secretary), Amber Rudd MP (current Home Secretary), David Davis MP (current Secretary for Exiting the EU) and Phillip Hammond MP (current Chancellor of the Exchequer). These are the most likely characters to be in the final running but one cannot rule out a dark horse emerging from elsewhere. Of the names mentioned above I would put my money on Mr Hammond succeeding Mrs May, but for now – of course – that is only an educated guess.

No matter who goes on to lead this minority administration, one senses trouble ahead. A general election – few seem in any doubt – will have to be held sometime within the next two years or so. As history has shown us governments tend to lose – not win – general elections when the economic fundamentals are not positive. The Conservatives badly need some good news on the economic front if they are to regain the advantage at Westminster. One of the few positives for them in this year’s vote is that the electorate still has some level of trust in the Tories’ economic record. This is why they are still in office. But, if for any reason, should this trust be lost and the Conservatives lose control of the economy then the expectation cannot be that Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell (the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer) will take the blame. No, the blame will be apportioned to the incumbents. Now should that kind of scenario emerge, one could very well see a Labour government at Westminster – something no one could have predicted until recently.

All of this is hypothetical. However what is now perfectly clear is that this Conservative government at Westminster will have to overcome hurdles on a weekly, if not a daily, basis. Indeed one gets the distinct impression that the current administration is nearing the end of its days. All governments are hostage to fortune in some way; this has never been truer of the present British government. The future could not be more uncertain.