May’s failure: Blackadder & the UK General Election 2017

Dr Demetris Tillyris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. He specialises in Contemporary Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought. He also serves as the Director of Making Politics Matter.

To say that the 2017 General Election results are surprising would be an understatement.  When Theresa May called the election, most opinion polls suggested that we should, at the very least, expect a healthy Conservative majority, if not a landslide. This much was also reflected in the betting odds set by various bookmakers. Yet, opinion polls and bookmakers proved almost as bad at gauging public opinion as Theresa May.

What the election result makes clear is that May’s gamble has not paid off. In fact, her failure can hardly be exaggerated. May hoped that, in holding a snap general election, she could capitalise on the weakness of, and bitter ideological squabbles within, the Labour Party, secure a landslide Conservative majority, and get a mandate that would purportedly strengthen her bargaining power in the Brexit negotiations. She has achieved the exact opposite: she has managed to throw away the narrow majority the Conservatives had in the last parliament, and to lose ‘safe Conservative seats’ to Labour – seats like Canterbury, which has been a Conservative stronghold since 1918, and which previously had a 10,000 majority.

The result of the General Election, however, is not just striking because of May’s unanticipated and epic political failure, but also, and more importantly perhaps, because it crystallises what became quite apparent during her disastrous, hubris-ridden political campaign: her failure of sound political judgement. Blinded, or perhaps misled, by the polls which suggested that the Tories were 20 per cent ahead of Labour, she took the electorate for granted. In stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, May appeared to be completely detached from political reality – the concrete injustices which plague our politics and society, and the plethora of insecurities and fears which now constitute a constant ingredient of our lives (see her ‘there’s no magic money tree’ response to the underpaid and struggling nurse during BBC Question Time election special). Her detachment from reality and profound failure of political judgement are, perhaps, epitomised in the way in which she (and Lynton Crosby) conducted her political campaign.

Theresa May’s campaign brings to mind a rather amusing scene from Blackadder III (which is worth watching or re-watching), where Edmund Blackadder, Prince George’s cunning, devious, and conniving butler – in an attempt to enhance the Prince’s political power and influence – instructs Baldrick – the hopelessly naïve, and innocent servant – to stand as an MP for Dunny-on-the-Wold: a ‘rotten borough’ which consists of ‘half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens, with an empty town hall on it … three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named `Colin’, and a small hen in its late forties’. In an interview before the election, Blackadder captures an important insight which May and Crosby have, at their peril, failed to entertain:

Blackadder: We in the Adder Party are going to fight this campaign on issues, not personalities.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Blackadder: Because our candidate doesn’t have a personality.

Blackadder’s point is clear and straightforward: if your candidate does not have a personality, do not turn your campaign into a personality contest. May’s and Crosby’s strategy was heavily, and erroneously focused on her being a robust and tough, one-trick pony, who could  be relied on to deliver Brexit. But May’s lack of personality and charisma deemed her promise of ‘strong and stable leadership’ implausible. Indeed, the narrative of ‘strength and stability’ was even further undermined by her unwillingness to take part in head-to-head debates, her social care U-turn – four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, and amid much fanfare about a fair Britain –, and the fact that the Tory Manifesto and campaign were, at best, rich in soundbites but profoundly thin on substance.

In her victory-defeat speech in Maidenhead, May has declared, in a crackling voice, her intention to marshal on. Her more recent statement confirms this much: the Tories will form a regressive alliance/minority government with the DUP. But whilst May is still emphasising the importance of stability and certainty, her position has been immensely weakened, and not only with her own party. As a number of EU officials have emphasised, her authority to conduct the Brexit negotiations has been severely undermined. And, without the 12 unanticipated Tory gains from the SNP in Scotland – gains which owe little to May -, her position would be even worse.

 

GE2017 candidates for Canterbury and Whitstable debate at CCCU

On Friday, 26 May, the Politics and International Relations Programme at Canterbury Christ Church University co-hosted a hustings with the candidates for the Canterbury and Whitstable constituency. In front of a packed audience, the four candidates debated diverse range of issues, including Brexit, healthcare, immigration, environmental protection and traffic policy, with many questions having been submitted previously by interested citizens.

All those who missed the event (or attended and want to relive it) can now watch a recording on Youtube:

The UK general election will be held on 8 June 2017. Watch this space for analysis and commentary from our expert staff. Check out our CCCU Election Experts Hub and see what expertise we have to offer.

Labour’s Brexit Strategy: Cut-&-Paste of Theresa May’s old promises?

This week, Labour revealed its Brexit strategy – Jack Brooks takes a closer look.

In the 10 months after the 23rd of June, the Labour party’s position on Brexit and what should happen next has been a bit… ‘undefined’ to say the least. They have been in an incredibly tough position of simultaneously wanting to appeal to the 63% of its voters that voted remain and not start any rebellions within the 218 out of 232 MPs that publicly supported remain, while also wanting to appeal to the 37% of its voters, 161 Labour held constituencies that voted leave and not hemorrhage any more of its working class support, a demographic that predominantly voted leave.

Having considered the above, it appears that Labour party HQ decided that their best course of action was to a) keep their head down, b) meekly try to appeal to both sides, while not really saying anything concrete, but c) mainly just oppose the government by saying. Of course, Labour was dealt a tough hand and this is a solid electoral strategy that, on the issue of the financial crash, saw the Liberal democrats sweep to 23% of the popular vote in 2010.

But then, like a renowned bandit brazenly slamming open the shutter doors to a sleepy Mid-western Saloon, Theresa May called a snap General election. The music stopped playing, everyone went silent and slowly turned their heads to the Sheriff who loudly gulped and realised it was his turn to say something… Sherriff Jeremy Corbyn was taken slightly aback and thus came out with a strategy that, with a few key differences, is basically the same plan the Conservative Government had in November.

First, let me know the few key differences:

  • Labour will not focus on new markets, instead focus on securing the UK’s existing trade ties, especially those with the EU
  • Labour will adopt a much more conciliatory tone with the EU27 in exit talks
  • Labour resolutely supports staying in: Erasmus, Euratom, the European Medical Agency, Europol & Eurojust
  • Labour promises to unilaterally protect EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK
  • Labour commits to not let the UK “lag behind EU in workplace protections or environmental standards in future”

These are a couple of added giveaways to Remainers that will certainly sweeten the Brexit blow for them, but in terms of the “real meat” of the last 10 months debate so far – ‘Hard Brexit versus Soft Brexit versus No Brexit – their position is the now infamous “having the cake and eat it too”-Brexit.

This is illustrated by statements by Keir Starmer in the same press conference on Tuesday:

  • He wants to rip up the Government White Paper and go for a “tariff-free trade with the EU, no new non-tariff barriers on trade, regulatory alignment and continued competitiveness in goods and services.”
  • However, he still rules out continued free movement, membership of the European Free trade area and Single market membership.

As Theresa May discovered to her dismay in January, these two things are incompatible as far as the European Union is concerned. When she proposed it as her plan, the EU27 said for all intent and purposes “We won’t agree with that and you will crash out with no deal”. An eventuality that Starmer said would be the “worst possible deal”.

Electorally, the Labour Brexit plan might make sense. Labour continues to (try to) appeal to both sides and win the election. Corbyn and his party will only need to deal with untangling the contradictory manifesto commitments after they have won.  Also why look a gift horse in the mouth? The blessing of being the opposition with staggeringly bad polling is that you don’t have to live in the bounds of reality (which is quite a lot of effort in any case). Nevertheless, if we do experience the largest polling mistake in modern history and Labour wins a majority, we need to expect a lot of back-paddling.

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

#GE2017 and Brexit – Traincrash vs lucky escape

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, god forbid, without adequate WIFI for the last day, you will be aware that we are having a snap election in just over 7 weeks’ time on the 8th of June. While seemingly the entirety of the UK population is preoccupying itself by venting their joy and frustration into the bottomless void of Twitter, I would like to take a moment to talk about Brexit and what this means for the upcoming negotiations.

In the short term, it means kicking the can down the road, but fortunately snap elections are… well, snappy. It seems highly unlikely we are going to hear anything major out of the Government over the next 7 weeks, not least because Parliament will be dissolving in 2 weeks time, the pre-election ‘Purdah’ will be kicking in any moment and the Prime Minister is going to be spending most of her time staging awkward photo-ops with nursery children.

My one word of warning, however, is that this ‘Article 50 Road’ is not very long and we are already going to spend the best part of 6 months of it with the French and German elections. Using these potentially crucial, if short, 7 weeks before the German elections start in earnest messing around with our own election might come back to bite us when we are scrambling to get a deal, transitional or not, in 2019.

But on the other side of the channel, the EU27 have an interesting opportunity to throw a spanner in the works if they so wish, as there is a European Council meeting on the 29th of April. Whether or not they will is a speculation too far for this graduate coordinator, but if they believed they might get a better deal out of Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May, or fancied a 28th member in the form of an independent Scotland, or if they just wanted to make life difficult for Theresa May by pulling a lever or two and forcing her into some manifesto pledges, now is the time for Donald Tusk to start honing his spanner-throwing skills.

With a longer term view, I muse two possible alternatives;

The first and, YouGov willing, much more likely outcome of this election is that May doesn’t have any moving vans arriving outside of No.10. If she wins, it seems fairly likely that the UK negotiating position will stay more or less the same: No European Court of Justice, No Single Market, No Customs union, but with a Free Trade Area and some form of customs agreement that allows for minimal non-tariff barriers, and a hard border in Dover but a soft one in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if as seems most likely she increases the Conservative majority in House of Commons she will treat this as a cast-iron validation of her Brexit strategy. Alongside this the EU27 position is unlikely to change much either unless there is the arrival of the aforementioned spanners.

I suppose there is a chance she has some electoral difficulties: perhaps she becomes concerned about her ‘Brexity’ base being tempted to UKIP or her ‘Remoany’ base being tempted by the Lib-Dems, and is forced into changing the Brexit strategy to appease an aspect of her coalition, but given her batting average of 46% vote share in the most recent Comres poll, this doesn’t seem that likely.

The second and, Ipsos willing, much less likely outcome is that Theresa May cannot achieve a majority. This alternative would be very chaotic and a massive upset to the Article 50 process will ensue. The polls seem to suggest Corbyn has a snowman’s chance in hell of actually getting a majority. So this alternative looks something like a Lib/Lab/SNP coalition or Con/Lib coalition…. here are two Buster Keaton GIFs as to what that might resemble:

 

To sum up, if everything goes according to Theresa May’s plan and the polling is correct, the snap elections shouldn’t affect the Brexit negotiations too much – yet, Trump is in the White House, Marine Le Pen has a shot at the French presidency, Leicester City boasts a Premier league victory and Britain voted to leave the European Union…

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.