The 2017 General Election: first thoughts

Dr Hugh Pemberton
Reader in Contemporary British History, University of Bristol, Department of History

Writing on the morning after the election, the fog of war has lifted to reveal a battlefield on which all sides are claiming victory but nobody has actually won.

Others more prescient than me wondered before the election if it did not have a whiff of another ‘snap election’ – 1974.

It turns out they were right.

Then Ted Heath went to the country to secure a strong mandate to deal with an issue of national importance (in those days, union power) but found that he ended up with fewer not more MPs.

Ted held on in No.10 for a while but eventually Labour formed a minority government.

But the arithmetic and the politics this time are not those of 1974.

Screenshot of UK General Election 207 results, taken from BBC News website.

What might be the lessons of yesterday’s vote?

First, though the Conservatives are the largest party, their loss of seats (even as their vote rose as Britain returned to a two-party system) represents a major defeat for the programme on which the Prime Minister went to the country – in the expectation of a landslide victory.

Second, austerity economics no longer holds sufficient appeal to deliver victory.

The Conservatives ran on a programme of continuing austerity, Labour on ending austerity.

The relative fortunes of the two parties suggest that an alternative to apparently never-ending austerity holds significant electoral appeal.

Third, a hard-Brexit appears to have been rejected.

The Conservatives promised a hard-Brexit, Labour a soft-Brexit (along with the SNP and Plaid Cymru), and the Liberal Democrats no Brexit at all).

Both major parties managed during the campaign to close down debate on Brexit.

Nonetheless, the setback to the Conservatives suggests that a hard-Brexit resonated with too few voters. (We should remember that whilst 51.9% of voters embraced ‘Leave’ in 2016 they were far from agreed on what form that departure should take).

Fourth, the result represents a significant personal victory for Jeremy Corbyn.

Many, including me, were sceptical that he could go beyond energising young people and actually get them to vote.

We were wrong.

Delivering both a large increase in Labour’s vote and an increase in the number of its MPs is a major achievement.

Where might we go from here?

First, we will likely see a Conservative minority government, sustained in office by the DUP.

Though today’s politics are not those of the 1970s, the experience of that decade is that minority government is possible, and indeed if done well can provide sufficient leverage for the party in question to go to the country and increase its majority (as Labour did in October 1974).

But minority government is hard, tiring, and unstable.

The governing party must fight every vote in the Commons as if it could lose.

Concessions must be made.

A minority government finds itself in a constant bidding war as it seeks to bribe smaller parties to lend the government their votes.

Even then key votes will be lost.

MPs must practically live in their offices and in the tea rooms and bars, constantly on hand in case a division is called and their vote is required.

Exhaustion soon sets in and there is a risk of growing paralysis.

Second, we must, surely, see a major reality check on Brexit.

Moving to exit the EU represents the biggest governmental challenge in the UK since the dark days of 1940.

Having initiated Article 50, the sands are already rapidly running through the hourglass.

Yet we have yet to start negotiations.

Instead we are indulging in an orgy of national introspection – indeed the absence of discussion about Britain’s future place in the world was perhaps the most striking feature of the recent election campaign.

This cannot go on.

But the election leaves the (presumably) future Conservative government in an exquisitely difficult position.

It has embraced a series of negotiating positions that presume (indeed demand) the hardest of hard Brexits.

Yet the voters appear underwhelmed.

So, either the government must push on to deliver its promise, and face possibly cataclysmic rejection at a later date.

Or it must change course.

Third, whichever party forms the next government, and whoever is our prime minister, given the political difficulties and conflicting signals generated by the election result, it is difficult to see how we can possibly begin negotiation with the EU-27 on the present timetable.

Asking for a pause in the process looks almost inevitable.

Fourth, Labour has moved left, and its general election performance – even though it did not deliver victory – is impressive enough to ensure that this policy shift is going to be long-lasting.

It will be a surprise if opponents within its parliamentary party do not fall into line.

Finally, Mrs May has been significantly discredited, not least in the eyes of her MPs.

She is unlikely to be able to keep a lid on simmering discontents in her parliamentary party – not least those who oppose her hard-Brexit policy.

This will be a significant force for instability both in domestic and foreign policy

But whatever happens it’s all going to be fascinating.

This article was originally post on Hugh Pemberton’s personal blog here.