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June 13, 2017

‘A bloody difficult woman’


June 13, 2017

In mid-April, when Prime Minister Theresa May – self-described as “a bloody difficult woman” – announced a snap general election on June 8, she took Britain by storm. The outcome was an unmitigated disaster for her Conservative Party and has resulted in a hung parliament. She now finds herself in “a bloody difficult” situation.

Even senior cabinet members were stunned by the decision because the prime minister had consistently insisted that a general election was not even a faint blip in the radar screen of her immediate priorities.

The speculation is that only her two fiercely loyal friends, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – both chiefs of staff at Downing Street – were not only taken into confidence but also consulted. The prime minister and her special advisers had misread the coffee cup.

They had expected a groundswell of popular support that would translate into a substantial increase in the razor-thin Conservative majority in the 650-member House of Commons. This, it was thought, would place Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis on a stronger wicket for formal talks with his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier. The talks are scheduled to begin in Brussels on June 19 – only 11 days after the general election.

Opinion polls were no less certain in the initial days after the election was announced that the Conservatives would win a commanding majority in the House of Commons. But in the seven-week-long campaign, May and senior party leaders made every mistake by the book.

The prime minister inexplicably refused to participate in televised debates with her opponents. As a result, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, had a field in forcefully projecting his far left manifesto. During the campaign, Theresa May came across as a political novitiate in spite of the six gruelling years she had spent as home secretary. A mere four days after the Conservative Party launched its manifesto on May 19, the prime minister reversed one of its flagship policies that sought to reform healthcare for the elderly.

The policy reversal requires wealthy older people to pay more for the cost of their in-home medical treatment. However, it ignores vital issues, such as putting a cap on costs. May hastened to insist: “Nothing has changed. Nothing has changed!” The denial convinced no one and The Economist stated: “She performed an embarrassing u-turn…and then tried to pretend that the u was a straight line”.

This was followed by a disastrous BBC interview that unmasked not only her lack of understanding of basic economics, but also the finer details of her own party’s manifesto. She came through as “weak and wobbly” and not the type of person who would provide “strong and stable” leadership as had been the persistent refrain during her campaign trail.

Even after this pathetic performance, when asked whether her refusal to take on her political opponents in television debates was prompted by fear and weakness, May responded unabashedly: “Every vote for me is a vote for strong and stable leadership which, I believe, this country needs…Who do you trust to have the strong and stable leadership to get on with the job of getting the best deal for Britain for Brexit, because Brexit really matters”.

Five or six days before the election, YouGov – a reputed polling firm – indicated that the Conservatives could lose as many as 20 seats, thereby resulting in a hung parliament. The actual outcome showed that the party lost 12 seats while the Labour Party gained 29 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Even though the Labour Party won an impressive 41 percent of the popular vote – and trailed the Conservatives by only two percentage points – it did not impact the strength of its representation in Westminster. The reason is that Britain, like Pakistan, follows the first-past-the-post electoral system. The battle for constituencies are won or lost on local issues as much as on matters of national importance.

Theresa May’s ill-advised decision to go for a general election cost her party its majority in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won an unimpressive 318 seats, Labour’s representation increased to 262 seats, the Scottish National Party lost 19 seats and ended up with 35 seats, the Liberal Democrats marginally increased their presence to 12 seats, the obscure Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) bagged 10 seats while 13 seats were taken by others.

The post-election composition of parliament includes 12 Pakistan-origin British nationals. PTI Chairman Imran Khan also has reason to celebrate: his former brother-in-law, Zac Goldsmith, won the Conservative seat from Richmond Park.

Instead of falling on her sword for demolishing the parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party, May did not show the least remorse when she announced – with an unbecoming grin – that she had formed a coalition government with the DUP and that the Brexit negotiations would begin as scheduled on June 19.

What she did not say is that two months had been unnecessarily squandered in the futile parliamentary election. Every moment is precious because the complex negotiations in Brussels will have to be completed by March 29, 2019.

For the past four decades, British politico-economic thought has been dominated by neoliberalism. It is founded on the bedrock of rolling back the state through privatisation, deregulation, reducing corporate taxes, reining in inflation and balancing the budget. It insists on embracing globalisation, which, in turn, is based on free trade and the unimpeded flow of capital and people.

It is strange that perhaps the most important British economist, John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), sternly criticised free trade “as an unwanted Victorian relic, as equally was an economic policy which left all to market forces”. He also argued that governments had far greater responsibilities than merely balance budgets. Married to a Russian ballerina, Keynes was also passionate about the arts. A year before his death, he became the first chairman of the British Arts Council.

The Conservative Party manifesto borrowed heavily from the Beveridge Report of 1942 that identified “five giant evils” that had to be slayed. It laid the foundation of a post-war welfare state. Theresa May’s manifesto also identified “five giant challenges” that included the economy, Brexit, an ageing society and technological change.

It echoed the views of Keynes as opposed to neoliberal thought when it stated that: “we do not believe in untrammelled free markets”. It is quite another matter that the prime minister did not study the manifesto thoroughly and, therefore, appeared confused and unsure of herself throughout the campaign.

In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn – the most left-wing leader the Labour Party has ever had – hit all the right notes: social justice, free college tuition, more funding for the National Health Service, nationalisation of the railways and utilities and higher taxes on corporations.

His message appealed to the poorest segments of British society – especially the working class and the unemployed. One is reminded that in the 1840s, Friedrich Engels stayed in England and recorded his experience in The Condition of the Working Class in England. The book was closely studied by Karl Marx and inspired The Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1848.


The writer is the publisher of
Criterion Quarterly.

Email: [email protected]


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