Making political predictions for Britain has become a perilous venture, as many polling organisations have discovered at great cost to their credibility. This week’s general election result looks like no exception, although most polls – and, perhaps more importantly, the political betting community – expect the Conservatives to be returned once again as the largest party in the House of Commons and to form the next government. Even were they to fall short of a majority of seats, a coalition with the Unionists of Northern Ireland would probably prove an easy construct for a return to office.
The most surprising outcome of the campaign so far has been the Labour Party’s rise in the opinion polls due to an unexpected Bernie Sanders-like public sympathy for their left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. Both the Conservatives and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, though from diametrically opposed positions, hoped that the public would vote according to their view of whether and how the UK should leave the EU. But the voters decide what issues determine an election; and the classic left-right divide over spending on public services appears to be what enthuses them.
Those who campaigned for Brexit promised that the £350 million a week currently spent on EU membership would be spent on health provision instead. Yet the Conservative Party’s manifesto – which is uncosted – says nothing of this, though it does promise an oft-repeated £8 billion extra for NHS spending over the next five years. Indeed, their planned cuts in public expenditure if re-elected have enraged many voters, such as the scheme dubbed ‘the dementia tax’ which would oblige many elderly people with dementia to sell their homes to help pay for their social care costs.
For Prime Minister May, the prospect of an increased majority at Westminster seemed just too tempting to ignore. She entered the campaign convinced that she would be returned with a larger army of MPs to secure Brexit, a mandate of her own to give her more control over them and a two-year extension to the life of her term in office. She ends it looking vulnerable to a failure to improve the Tories’ parliamentary position in any significant way, and the victim of two or three campaign gaffs which have dented perceptions of her as a sure-footed leader. I believe her position will be weakened, at home and abroad.
For Britain and for the EU the consequences may be dire. A poor general election showing makes it more likely she will need to convince people she can be strong and can unite her party. ‘Strong’, to the UK Prime Minister, will mean being seen to stand up to Europe. It means the popular press will fight World War Two all over again. Uniting her party can be achieved only by Britain crashing out of its negotiations with its main trading partners and thus avoiding a choice between a ‘soft’ (retaining access to the EU’s single market) and a ‘hard’ (cutting all trade ties) Brexit. These two imperatives combine to make conflict with Britain’s continental partners more likely. Theresa May’s nightmarish mantra ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ is to prepare people for this.