Friday, Apr 28, 2017

May goes for June

“YOU’RE joking, another one!” A video of a British woman reacting to the news of a snap general election has summed up much of the national mood at the prospect of yet another round of voting. Having had a general election in 2015, a referendum on leaving the EU in 2016 and imminent local elections to be held on May 4, Prime Minister Theresa May has added to it all by calling for a general election on June 8.
Many will see this as an election driven by political expediency and opportunity, with the prime minister eying up a historically massive victory that would be the basis of a further two terms in power. It was this sort of politically-motivated maneuver that the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 was meant to avoid by stipulating that parliaments must last a full five years. This one should have gone on until 2020. The polls, of dubious reliability in recent times, show that this dream may be achievable with the Conservatives enjoying around an 18 to 21-point lead over Labour with 44 percent vote share to Labour’s 23-26 percent. This could translate into around 400 Tory seats, up from 330 at present. Even Margaret Thatcher only ever secured 397 seats in her most successful election in 1983. 
Labour is massively divided with most of its parliamentary base opposing party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, many Labour supporters have come out to voice their belief that May is a better leader. Moreover, on Brexit, the party leadership’s position appears hesitant, offering no effective opposition to the government’s shift toward a hard Brexit. Many predict a car crash election but it may only be a minor bump and could only see the party lose a few dozen seats.
However, this is a risk for May. Many see this as a cynical party move which is not in the national interest, as she has argued. Her most hollow claim was that “the country is coming together, but Westminster is not.” Her party is still bitterly divided. For the 48 percent of voters in last June’s referendum who wanted to remain within the EU, this is a final opportunity to influence the path of Britain’s exit from the EU. The Liberal Democrats, from a low base of nine MPs, hope to prosper as the only party outside of Scotland campaigning to remain in the EU. Tory MPs in west England fear that backlash against Brexit could impact their support base.
Labour will want to fight this on various issues such as the National Health Service, education, social welfare and cuts. Its ability to push this agenda, as opposed to Brexit, may determine the result. In his response to May’s call for a snap general election in June, Corbyn barely mentioned Europe, which the polls show is the standout issue. The Scottish National Party faces an altogether different issue. They can hardly outperform the 2015 election result when they won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.
Foreign affairs beyond Europe and trade will likely play a marginal role in the upcoming election. May is close to Donald Trump who is far from popular in Britain but, as of yet, this has not damaged her significantly. The most serious opposition to her international policy lies in the ranks of die-hard Corbynistas, a group she has no chance of winning over. On the foreign affairs front, she may also face a challenge from those concerned about interventions in Iraq and Syria and the strong pro-Netanyahu bias of her government.
British Muslim voters have hardly been pursued by this government. The chief Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby reportedly wrote them off, culminating in a vicious dog whistle campaign against Sadiq Khan when he ran successfully for mayor of London during yet another election last year. Hopefully, the Tory party will have learned their lesson that such tactics do backfire and should never be repeated. 
Nonetheless, hate crimes and hate speech are at worryingly high levels, something the far-right party UKIP will no doubt want to prosper from. Its polling figures are down, perhaps because it is seen as a single-issue party consumed only with the issue of Brexit and because its charismatic leader Nigel Farage stood down.
For May’s gamble to work, winning is not enough. She must win big. She needs the sort of majority that will allow her to govern without depending on the real opposition in British politics which is to be found in her Cabinet and on her backbenches. To mold the sort of government she craves, she wants a working majority of close to a hundred so that she does not have to look over her shoulder more than at the opposition benches in front of her. She has Euroskeptics and out and out Europhiles ready to oppose her as well as disgruntled supporters of former Prime Minister David Cameron in her party ranks.
The rest of the world will watch on as interested observers. EU powers will publicly state that a clearer British negotiating position on Brexit will be welcomed. In private, they will be concerned that May will be a more formidable opponent if she has a massive electoral mandate and limited domestic opposition. This is a view that the financial markets seem to share as the British pound surged after May’s announcement on Tuesday. May has fired the starting gun and is the frontrunner by a mile. But an election is a marathon not a sprint and this one will have plenty of hurdles for her to jump.
Arab News


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