Opinion

Opinion

Theresa May: the Icarus of UK politics

Posted June 9

Icarus, with his wax wings, flew too close to the sun and fell to Earth. Here in modern Britain, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May in April chose to call a snap general election -- our political rules would have allowed her to wait for another three years -- because polls showed her 24% ahead of her Labour rival, Jeremy Corbyn, and she expected to score a crushing victory. Now she has lost her majority in Parliament.

At time of writing, May is struggling to form a coalition with the support of 10 hard-line representatives of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. If she quits in the next few months, she'll go down in history as the shortest-term prime minister since 1922. It's always the cockiness that kills you.

Theresa May insists that she can remain Prime Minister, but her power is crippled. Late tonight, still acting as Prime Minister, she announced that she would not be reshuffling her top team, despite briefing for weeks that she would move to sack powerful party rivals when -- not if -- she won the electorate's endorsement of her personal leadership.

How she thinks she can continue to assert any political authority is beyond most of us here in the UK.

Is this another example of the populism we've seen sweep the globe? In part, yes. Labour's Jeremy Corbyn may have his roots on the Marxist left, but his core followers have plenty in common with those of Donald Trump: a loathing of the establishment, expressed both as deep resentment of those who've benefited from globalization and as vicious abuse of the professional media.

But May, too, ran a campaign based on voters' fears and insecurities. Obsessed with terrorism and her opponent's extremist-supporting past, she forgot to make a positive case for her own party's policies. Many who voted today for Labour would argue that they've chosen hope, not hatred of Britain's EU immigrants or our Muslim neighbors.

The real crisis of this election is not that either leader represented a bulwark against populism, but that both had been infected by it. Both whipped up voters against easy enemies. For May, it was immigrants -- as home secretary, she had been responsible for infamous "Go Home" posters displayed on government vans -- or the forces of division she accused of undermining the British people's desire to exit the EU. For Corbyn, it was America, Israel and far too often, "Zionists."

The consequence is that in Britain, all bets are off. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by our surprise. Whether you are British or American, Filipino or French, the era of political certainty is over.

One immediate source of uncertainty as a result of this election concerns Britain's place in Europe. Britain may seek a more "soft Brexit" than expected. May framed this election as a vote of confidence in her Brexit strategy; but because no one knew what that strategy was, most voters cited other policy issues as their core motivation.

As it is, Corbyn is understood to be considerably more Eurosceptic than his party has allowed him to say in public; a major book by Sunday Times editor Tim Shipman even accused him of sabotaging the Remain campaign. But the new composition of Labour MPs in Parliament is broadly better disposed than the Tories toward remaining in the single market and toward staying signed up to European treaties on human rights.

Yet even Europe isn't the only major constitutional issue on which we Brits are now groping in the dark. The relationship between London and the devolved nations of UK is just as problematic.

Scotland is now unlikely to face an immediate second referendum on Independence, thanks to SNP losses north of the border. In Ireland, however, it seems impossible to square the vital Peace Agreement, by which goods and services flow freely between the Republic and Northern Ireland, with the need for a hard customs border between EU and non-EU countries. The entry into government of the Irish DUP party, which is committed to maintain a "soft" border, only makes this harder.

It comes as no surprise that the pound is dropping. And it will likely continue to drop. But remember: Theresa May didn't have to do this. Hubris is a killer.

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