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July 5, 2017

The great gamble


July 5, 2017

Never believe the British press projecting the Conservative Party on the path to win a landslide victory. That was the only thing on my mind as I got the task to head the British general elections coverage for Geo News.

It was the same formula that I had applied to the American Press in October 2016 while supervising the US presidential elections coverage. Back then, almost every American TV channel and newspaper had projected Hillary Clinton’s landslide victory against one of the most controversial candidates in the US, Donald Trump – only to come up with lame excuses later when proved wrong.

The British elections were to be fought on a single-point agenda: Brexit. I was supposed to produce a series of programmes on policy issues, ranging from the impact of Brexit, immigration and the NHS to housing and education. The only thing that was not on anyone’s mind was terrorism. It was a shock to everyone when Ariana Grande’s Manchester concert ended in a suicide blast that left 22 concertgoers dead, and temporarily suspended election campaigning around the country. Since then, security dominated the campaign, placing Brexit on the backburner.

Before the Manchester bombing, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the Labour Party was on a high-tide of popularity. He had promised to scrap the GBP18,600 threshold on spouse visa, waive tuition fee and massively fund the NHS along with building new council houses across the country. On the contrary, Theresa May had failed to lure middle and lower-income voters with such a manifesto. By then, even the right-wing media had started to admit that Labour under Corbyn would give a tough time to Theresa May. And then another terrorist attack in London jolted the British people. The national election campaign was briefly halted again and even after it was resumed, the Union Jack continued to fly at half mast and St Ann’s Square remained a focal point for mourners.

Terrorist attacks in the run up to the British elections reminded the globe of 2004 when Osama bin Laden’s tape had surfaced, giving an edge to incumbent Republican US President George W Bush over Democrat challenger John Kerry. All eyes were on how far the Conservative British prime minister would cash in on the recent fear factor. Jeremy Corbyn had accused May of pandering to Donald Trump who was busy building a coalition against Iran. Corbyn had vowed to return to an ethical foreign policy on Iran as well as North Korea.

Meanwhile, a number of British members of parliament claimed that the Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party was being funded by Russia. But no one knew who was supporting the anti-EU conservatives seeking outright majority to bargain for Brexit. A number of Conservative candidates, who later got elected as members of parliament, did, however, confide off the record that Brexit was a recipe of disaster for Great Britain and even the referendum to divorce the European Union was a blunder.

Some Labour candidates alleged that a number of countries were trying their best to stop Corbyn from getting elected as they wanted Britain to sail in the same direction. One candidate claimed that foreign meddling had reached such an extreme that even some members of parliament from Pakistan were visiting the UK to encourage their community to vote for Conservatives.

For the outside world, the London and Manchester attacks had put Muslim candidates in an awkward position. Talking to people outside Grande’s One Love Manchester Memorial Concert which was sold out in six minutes and which generated $2 million for Red Cross’s Manchester Emergency Fund, I didn’t come across a single individual who blamed Muslims for the attacks. Outside the historic Old Trafford ground, where the concert was going on, I met a father who was standing with his teen daughter in disbelief. The girl had survived but her friend had lost life in the Manchester attack; his daughter had been given a special ticket to attend memorial concert to help come out of the trauma.

The girl burst into tears when Coldplay took to the stage for their moving performance. Holding her father’s arm, she was trying to pluck up courage to see Ariana Grande close the concert. She knew the attacker was a so-called Muslim but was convinced that such extremists had caused more harm to people of their own religion than believers of any other religion. The father of another survivor was ready to vote for British-Muslim candidates.

Eventually, 16 Muslims MPs – up from 13 in 2015 – got elected. In 2010, this tally was only eight. The number of British Pakistani members of parliament also increased from 10 in 2015 to 12 this year, as nine Labour and three Conservatives Pakistani-origin candidates defeated their opponents, some of them with big margins. Naz Shah was so confident of defending her seat that she even didn’t react to an alleged 2015 audio tape released to discredit her on election eve.

On top of that, there were more than a 100 constituencies across Britain where Muslim voters played an important role. In the end, the beleaguered British prime minister lost 13 seats in the greatest gamble of her political life. She also lost her party’s majority in parliament but still managed to keep Corbyn at bay from 10 Downing Street.

There are some who will never forgive May for her snap elections but it was a blessing in disguise for the Cameron-inspired 70 percent Conservative MPs and MEPs who want to remain in the EU. They are relieved that their party will no more be dragged on a Ukip-driven agenda. For them it matters less if May fades out in October if somehow a window of opportunity is created where a limping UK somehow tries to find a way back in the European Union.


The writer is a senior journalist
associated with Geo News

Email: [email protected]


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