Surely after the recent UK elections Theresa May’s reputation is as diminished as Jeremy Corbyn’s has been enhanced. The Prime Minister asked the electorate for a mandate to strengthen her hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the European Union; they denied her that and as a result Britain has needlessly been plunged into a constitutional mess at a most inopportune time. Almost one week before those negotiations begin, the Prime Minister is scrambling to put a desperate coalition together but they are both unlikely to survive for very long.
From hubris to nemesis
She had an overall working majority in Parliament; was riding high in the polls, 20 percentage points ahead of Corbyn whom she trounced in their weekly encounters at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. She strutted round European capitals buoyed by the authority of last year’s Brexit mandate and projected an image of strength and leadership at home.
Then hubris struck at Easter, during a walk in the Welsh mountains, and persuaded the Prime Minster that what she really needed was even more power to do as she pleased and crush an enfeebled Labour Party. And she fell for it! The result? The loss of a wafer-thin majority in the Commons; demonstrable proof that she is a weak campaigner, an unsteady hand, a flip-flopper of questionable judgment and an emboldened leader of the opposition. As my friend Ama put it pithily, what a “complete and utter May-hem!”
So how did we get here?
An unlikely beneficiary of the outcome of the Brexit referendum last year, Mrs. May emerged as a calm, steady-hand the Tories and the country needed. It did not take long, however, for this reformed ‘Remainer’ to adopt a more stridently, hardcore Brexit posture, constantly reminding anyone who challenged her that the people had spoken and “Brexit meant Brexit”. Her stern and steely demeanour designed to project toughness drew admiration and respect from the people.
As she demolished the leader of the opposition in their weekly Punch and Judy exchanges that make for political theatre in Britain, rid her cabinet of leading ‘Remainers’, surrounded herself with hardcore Brexiteers, and took the fight to EU negotiators, her poll ratings soared. She was going for a rupture with Europe. The semi-detached Norwegian or Swiss models which allowed those countries access to the Single Market without being full members of the EU, were ruled out.
Many more people now supported Britain leaving the EU than had voted for Brexit in the June 2016 referendum. So, despite prior refusals to call an early general election, with the Labour Party on the ropes under a “shambolic” leader, her poll ratings in the stratosphere, the Prime Minister decided to go to the country ostensibly for more legislative room to negotiate Brexit, but in reality to finish off any residual opposition to her interpretation of Brexit and negotiating stance.
The battle plan did not survive contact with the enemy
The Brexit battle plan, however, disintegrated on first contact. Jeremy Corbyn’s own lukewarm attitude towards the EU took Brexit off the table as an election issue. He could not be portrayed as pro-European like many in the Labour party establishment. He stated very clearly at the outset that under his administration Britain would leave the Single Market and put an end to EU freedom of movement which in his view under-cut wages of the working class. All of which made it possible for many Labour and UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters who supported Brexit to come back home and focus on traditional campaigning issues of health, schools, jobs, wages etc.
As a lifelong activist and campaigner Corbyn came into his own on the hustings and in debates with the public. He may have pulled his punches, missed open goals, and looked awkward during his weekly encounters at Prime Minister’s Questions, but on the campaign trail, he was most at ease as she was uncomfortable. He had the conviction of his beliefs on a range of issues from tuition fees, minimum wage to foreign policy, even if they were outside mainstream establishment thinking.
She, on the other hand, remained her hubristic self; refused to debate other party leaders, offered no detailed programme beyond her robotic “strong and stable” mantra and went all weak and wobbly on the only substantive domestic policy she put forward in her party’s manifesto. The appearance of wanting to impose a tax on old-aged pensioners to pay for social care (dubbed dementia tax) offended many loyal Tory voters.
In the end, rather than Brexit, it was the juxtaposition of disaffected pensioners who could otherwise be relied on to deliver the votes for the Tories in any election, and previously unreliable young voters who turned out in large numbers to vote for Corbyn in support of his populist tuition-free, higher minimum wage policies, that defined the 2017 election campaign.
Jeremy transcends his perceived vulnerabilities
Jeremy Corbyn’s achievement is all the more remarkable because he increased the Labour Party’s share of the popular vote to 40 percent, the highest since 2005, at a time when Britain was ravaged by terrorist attacks during the elections, first in Manchester and then London. Corbyn’s previously held positions and associations with the political wings of various terrorist groups made him especially vulnerable on issues of national security. Still, he did not shy away from expressing his long-held beliefs on the connection between British Foreign Policy and terrorist attacks. And despite the derision and condemnations of the mainstream media and the political classes, it had no impact on his standing with the electorate.
On the contrary, the London attacks refocused attention on whether the police and security forces were adequately resourced to deal with the terrorist threats. Ironically, the Prime Minister’s own role in overseeing cuts in police numbers during her seven-year tenure as Home Secretary made her more vulnerable on this issue than Corbyn.
And rises from Theresa’s mayhem
Having confounded his critics by winning his party’s leadership twice and brought them closer to forming a government than at any time since 2010, today’s Labour Party belongs to Jeremy Corbyn. Theoretically, if May fails to sustain a coalition and he could demonstrate his ability to form a stable government to Her Majesty, Jeremy Corbyn might be Prime Minster sooner that most imagine.
The progressive wing has moved into the mainstream of the Labour Party with a populist agenda rooted in idealism that has aroused the interests of young people and galvanized them to engage. In this regard Corbyn’s campaign emulated the US Democratic Presidential Candidate, Bernie Sanders, with his polices on University tuition fees and higher minimum wage.
As for Theresa May, she has come to the end of the road and will not see out her five-year term as Prime Minister. Her coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland will not provide the stability needed to sustain a government through the next Parliament. Since she can’t afford a single dissension from any major Bill, her government is headed for inevitable collapse.
Short of a ‘Grand Patriotic Coalition’ with the Labour Party to negotiate Brexit in the interests of all its people over the next two years, Britain will head to the polls once again for another general election sooner rather than later.
Delhi, June 2017