17 February 2019
With a weakened position after the election, UK Prime Minister Theresa May will face mounting challenges from within the party and a much tougher Brexit journey. Photo: Bloomberg
With a weakened position after the election, UK Prime Minister Theresa May will face mounting challenges from within the party and a much tougher Brexit journey. Photo: Bloomberg

The Brits have two gambling junkies as prime minister in a row

Shot herself in the foot: that’s perhaps exactly what British Prime Minister Theresa May has just done.

She could have served as UK leader in relative comfort with a slight Tory majority in the parliament until 2020. However, perhaps out of over-optimism about her party’s popularity, or under-estimation of the strength of the beleaguered Labor, May decided to bring the general election three years forward and call a snap election.

Unfortunately, the election results have turned out to be, at best, a Pyrrhic victory for the Tories. May’s decision has backfired; she is now worse off politically than before last Thursday’s election.

Although the Conservative Party remains the single largest party in the House of Commons, it no longer holds the majority, with its number of seats down to 318 from 330.

As a result, it has to seek or literally beg for the partnership of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP), which took 10 seats in the election, in order to form a minority coalition government.

In contrast, managing to narrow its popularity gap with the Tories bit by bit in major polls during the run-up to the snap election, the Labor, under Jeremy Corbyn, made a significant breakthrough and took 262 seats, up an impressive 32 seats from the previous election. No wonder Corbyn joyfully claimed victory after the election and declared, “We changed the face of British politics.”

As expected, after the disastrous election results had been confirmed, May came under fire from her angry and disaffected partymates for her colossal political mistake.

And rumors have been flying that several heavyweights in the Tory Party are attempting to mount a coup and unseat May as party chairperson.

Among the potential hopefuls are Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis.

However, there is also talk that although these heavyweights are all eyeing the Tory chairmanship and the prime minister’s office, they won’t make any move at least over the next six months in order to allow the party to recover from the mayhem and not to give the Labor any opportunity to fish in troubled waters.

(Editor’s note: Boris Johnson and David Davis have pledged to support Theresa May on national TV and agreed to remain in their current positions, at least for now.)

May might be able to stay at No. 10 Downing Street for the time being, but two of her top advisers, the chief of staff of the prime minister’s office Nick Timothy and his deputy Fiona Hill, had to pack up.

Many Tories are only too happy to see the tight-knit duo leave because they have become so hated by Tory MPs and May’s cabinet ever since she took office as prime minister last year.

Why were they so hated? According to British media reports, it is mainly due to their confrontational style, disrespect for senior government officials, and their tendency to throw their weight around. In the end, their serious under-estimation of public backlash against the proposed drastic cuts in social welfare spending, which alienated a lot of voters in this election, has proven their undoing.

One reason why May decided to take such a huge political gamble in calling a snap election was that she wanted to seek an ultimate popular mandate which can enable her to negotiate terms for leaving the European Union with Brussels in a position of relative strength.

Well, so much for May’s ambitious plan to drive a hard bargain in the upcoming Brexit talks, not to mention that she has held herself up to public ridicule within Britain for her political miscalculation of mega proportions.

Ironically, May was able to become prime minister because her predecessor, David Cameron, also unnecessarily took a huge political gamble and inflicted an Armageddon on himself by holding a referendum to let the British voters decide whether to remain in or leave the EU. And the rest is history.

With the Brexit talks between London and Brussels due to take place on June 19, May is now in a far worse position than before the election, and it is believed the EU will be taking no prisoners in the upcoming negotiations.

Some observers even suggested the new hung parliament is very likely to stand in the way of May’s Brexit plan.

If she and the opposition are not willing to compromise over the Brexit terms, the stalemate might eventually trigger another Brexit referendum.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 12

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe