General Election 2017: what on earth happens now?

The people have spoken. Again. Now, a hung parliament, a humiliated Tory leader and a resurgent Labour Party have to work out what the people meant. As the parties try to navigate this vastly altered political landscape, Will Green asks: what on earth happens now?


A demonstrator wears a mask depicting Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May, poses with a mock gravestone bearing the words "Hard Brexit, RIP", during a protest photocall near the entrance 10 Downing Street in central London on June 9, 2017 as results from a snap general election show the Conservatives have lost their majority.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Seven weeks ago, when Theresa May called the election, she was riding high. The highest popularity ratings for any British political leader and her party 24 points ahead in the polls. A crushing Conservative majority was all but guaranteed. 

And, even after various campaign blunders like the ‘dementia tax’ and the promise to bring back fox hunting, on June 7 the smart money was still on the Conservatives to win a healthy victory. 

The smart money was wrong. 

In the final analysis the Conservatives won only 318 seats, a loss of 12 MPs which leaves them eight short of a majority. Labour, on the other hand, defied critics who predicted they’d be left with fewer than 200 MPs and, in fact, gained 30 new ones. 

So, for the second election in ten years, the UK parliament is hung. What does that mean for the political parties – and, more importantly, what does it mean for the country?

The Conservative Party: a humiliating victory

Prime Minister Theresa May arrives back at Downing Street after going to Buckingham Palace where she sought the Queen’s permission to form a UK government on June 9, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

To hear Theresa May speaking the day after the election, you might be forgiven for wondering if she’d actually been told the result. 

“I will now form a government. A government that can provide certainty and can lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country. This government will guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks that begin in just 10 days, and deliver on the will of the British people by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union.” 

It was a speech that might have made sense if she’d gained a majority of 50 or more, but in light of a shock hung parliament was totally at odds with the mood of the day.

May’s strategy is clear: ignore the humiliation of the election result and get on with Brexit as if her parliamentary gamble had paid off. 

Constitutionally speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. Despite the setback, the Conservatives are by far the largest party and, bolstered by the votes of 10 MPs from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), May can form a minority government. In principle, there’s nothing stopping her from leading this government for the next five years up to a 2022 general election.

In practice, however, this is extremely unlikely. Even in the best of times, minority governments are unstable and short lived. And these are decidedly not the best of times. As the BBC coyly says of minority governments, they “can be quite constrained in what they can do, passing as little legislation as possible to avoid defeat.” Given that the defining purpose of the May administration will be to pass the Great Repeal Bill, transferring EU law into UK law, such a ‘constrained’ approach is simply not tenable.

The smart money was on the Conservatives to win a healthy victory. The smart money was wrong

There are specific problems with any deal struck with the DUP, too. While we still don’t know the specifics of the arrangement between the Conservatives and their new Northern Irish allies, it’s highly unlikely there will be a formal coalition such as the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance. Far more probable is a looser ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, where the DUP promise to support the government in no-confidence votes and on budget issues. In return, the government will promise to support and fund specific DUP policies. 

It is the latter part of such an agreement that could prove extremely problematic. While the DUP, in some senses, are natural allies of the Conservatives – they are economically right-leaning and strongly pro-Brexit – their views on social issues such as gay rights and abortion are unpalatable to most modern Tories. Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson has already challenged Theresa May to provide “categoric assurance” that she’ll press the DUP on its equalities record as part of any deal. 

Even more problematic, however, is the DUP’s status as both a party in Westminster and a party in Stormont, the Northern Irish parliament. And while the UK’s parliament is now in crisis thanks to last week’s election, the crisis in Stormont has been raging for three months because of the collapse in a power sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein. 

The impasse in Northern Ireland – combined with uncertainty over a hard border with the Irish Republic following Brexit – threatens a return to the brutal sectarianism of Irish politics before the 1997 Good Friday Agreement. The potential for a Westminster government to act as a neutral arbitrator in de-escalating such a return will be completely undermined by a formal alliance between the party of government and the DUP.

Even in the best of times, minority governments are unstable and short lived

Put simply, the DUP have very little to lose by aggressively leveraging their position to drive forward votes on unpalatable social legislation and to strengthen their own position in Northern Ireland. Conservative Party MPs, so eager to ‘take back control’, are unlikely to respond well to being hostage to such demands. The likelihood of a lasting Tory-DUP alliance, then, are slim to none. 

And so, where does this leave Theresa May and her party? Personally, the PM is incredibly vulnerable. She had an awful election campaign which exposed her as far more weak and wobbly than strong and stable. Conservative MPs are reportedly furious with her. Political editor at ITV, Robert Peston, quoted a senior Tory MP on Twitter:

May’s refusal to admit to the scale of her humiliation on Friday and her determination to continue with the same front bench as before the election suggest she has no plans to go anywhere. But that decision may be taken out of her hands. 

Under the current situation, there is simply no way May can hope to undertake Brexit negotiations with any hope of success. And once that becomes clear, a leadership challenge is likely, with David Davis and Boris Johnson obvious candidates to replace her. Ruth Davidson, arguably the only Conservative to come away from Thursday smiling thanks to her successful harrying of the SNP in Scotland, would be a popular choice for future leader, but as she doesn’t yet hold a Westminster seat, it’s unlikely she’ll be next.

On the other hand though, inheriting the leadership of the Conservative Party in its current state cannot be an attractive proposition for anyone. The first priority of a new leader would be to consolidate their position and secure a majority in the House of Commons enabling them to govern effectively. 

That means – with apologies to Brenda – another election before 2022 is almost certain, and could be as early as this autumn. 

The Labour Party: a joyful defeat

BRITAIN-VOTE
Britain’s opposition Labour party Leader Jeremy Corbyn gives a thumbs up as he arrives at Labour Party headquarters in central London on June 9, 2017 after results in a snap general election. (Photo credit DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

For Jeremy Corbyn and his team, election night was a triumph. Corbyn’s two years as leader of the Labour Party have been tumultuous: vilified by the media, distrusted by many members of his own party, the prevailing view was that an election would see the party lose seats, potentially falling below the paltry total achieved by Michael Foot in 1983. To increase Labour’s share of the vote more than any other leader since Atlee in 1945 and win 30 new seats was both a shock to the political commentariat and a staggering vindication of his leadership. 

But while no one can begrudge Labour supporters their celebrations – there has been precious little for them to celebrate over the last decade – these results need to be placed into context. By winning 262 seats, the party has only recovered to 2010 levels when Gordon Brown lost the election to David Cameron. They are still over 50 seats smaller than the Conservatives and, even if a deal to create a ‘progressive coalition’ with the SNP and Lib Dems were possible, they don’t have the combined votes to form a government. 

The question for Corbyn and the Labour Party is how to consolidate and build on this result so that at the next election, whenever it is called, they are positioned not simply to foil the Conservatives, but to win outright.

The policies that cut through to voters, meanwhile, were practical commitments to address the fears of real people like eliminating tuition fees and tackling the housing crisis

The electoral map now makes that far more possible. One small but significant result of a hung parliament is that the Tories proposed boundary changes, which would have been highly disadvantageous to Labour, will now no longer happen. And the swing towards Labour across the country means that there are now many more winnable seats. Shock victories in Tory safe seats like Canterbury and Kensington, moreover, will increase confidence that the party can overturn even sizeable majorities. 

But the picture is not all rosy. Many Labour seats, particularly in strongly pro-Leave areas like the North East, are still vulnerable. The collapse of the UKIP vote in those areas undoubtedly aided Tory candidates. 

So, what does this mean in terms of Labour’s future plans? Arguably, their success at this election was brought about by a pivot towards, if not the centre, then at least the ‘soft left’. The first two years of Corbyn’s leadership were marked by arguments over things like Trident and reprosecuting the Iraq war, issues that excited his base but alienated his Labour colleagues in parliament and many Labour voters. 

The Labour manifesto for this election, however, was not substantially different to Ed Miliband’s in 2015. The policies that cut through to voters, meanwhile, weren’t arcane arguments around abstract left-wing philosophies like universal basic income, but practical commitments to address the fears of real people like eliminating tuition fees and tackling the housing crisis.

Whether this translates into a more pragmatic and inclusive leadership style post-election remains to be seen. There’s no doubt a united Labour Party could now be a serious force, and centrists like Chuka Umunna have already indicated they’d return to the front bench.

Labour may now pivot and argue for a soft Brexit

One senses that Corbyn himself would back a consensual reconciliation with his previous detractors among the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). But whether his die-hard supporters will forgive those MPs who, in their eyes, have betrayed the leader for the last two years is another question.

Much of the answer to that question – and indeed to Labour’s prospects of future success – rely on how the party faces up to the challenge of Brexit. Up to now, Labour have shadowed the Conservatives in their position on Brexit, committing to leaving the single market and, by implication, ending freedom of movement, to defend their seats in Leave constituencies in the North West and North East.

But the election has shown that, though the collapse of UKIP has helped the Conservatives more than Labour, it hasn’t been enough to cost Labour seats. And given that the strongest swings towards Labour came in London and the shires – much more strongly Remain areas – an aggressive strategy to take Conservative seats might lead to a change in approach. 

Labour may now pivot and argue for a soft Brexit, with a focus on staying in the single market and accepting freedom of movement. This would appeal to the centrist Tory voters in the new marginals and be a rallying point for Labour Party moderates, uniting the party in a way it has not been united for a long time. 

Most importantly, this switch would be an obvious way to shore up the youth vote. Though it’s too early to say conclusively, the early signs are that a youth turnout of over 70 per cent was a large factor in Labour’s electoral gains. For Labour’s success to continue, such turnout will have to become the new normal, rather than a one-off aberration. Given that 18-25-year olds supported Remain by a large majority compared to other demographics, a new Labour line on Brexit seems probable. 

And the rest: a mixed bag

Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron Speaks Following General Election Gains
Liberal Democrat Party leader Tim Farron speaks to suporters and the press at 1 Whitehall Place on June 9, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

For all the talk, as recently as 2015, of the end of two-party politics, the most striking thing about this election is the extent to which the two main parties have reasserted their dominance. 

Of the other parties, the only one to have what would be called a ‘good’ night was the Liberal Democrats. Although a ‘mixed’ night would be a fairer description. Starting from the low base of eight seats, they have increased their number of MPs by 50 per cent. But 12 MPs still isn’t very many. 

The party will be delighted with the return to parliament of big beasts such as Vince Cable and Jo Swinson. But they’ll be disappointed to lose former leader Nick Clegg in Sheffield and Sarah Olney in Richmond. 

For the Lib Dems, the main thing is that their party remains alive. If the election is seen as a rejection of May and hard Brexit, then they will be confident, as the only party to consistently oppose it, that their trajectory is positive.

For all the talk, as recently as 2015, of the end of two-party politics, the most striking thing about this election is the extent to which the two main parties have reasserted their dominance

For the other minor parties, however, the 2017 election was a disaster. UKIP not only failed to win a seat, they actually lost their deposit in 336 of the seats they contested. While it’s risky to rule out a resurgence entirely, it does seem that their time as a political force is over. 

The SNP struggled, too, losing 21 seats, essentially putting any hopes Nicola Sturgeon may have had for a second independence referendum indefinitely on hold. They will be particularly disappointed to lose former leader Alex Salmond and their leader in Westminster Angus Robertson, an MP who’d established himself as a strong Commons performer. 

Though the SNP’s stunning sweep of Westminster seats in 2015 is still in recent political memory, they’ve been the dominant force in Scottish politics for well over a decade. Like UKIP, they look set to dwindled in the face of single-issue fatigue. Having lost the independence vote in 2014, their purpose as a political party now remains unclear. 

The times are still changing

Taken together with the 2016 Brexit vote, this year’s election speaks to a widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo. But, as yet, no party has managed to articulate a positive vision for what a change that appeals to the majority of the country might look like. 

What is certain is that uncertainty looks set to continue. The result of this general election is nothing if not inconclusive. Changes are coming. For the coming months, expect neither strength nor stability.