A Dis-United Kingdom: Brexit and Theresa May’s Pyrrhic Victory

CounterPunch

The political landscape of the United Kingdom has gone through upheaval in the general election on 8 June 2017, and the country is to begin difficult negotiations to leave the European Union by March 2019. Despite a small majority in the last Parliament, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election, asking the country to give her a landslide victory, and strengthen her hand in dealing with EU negotiators. She promised that she would be a “bloody difficult woman” in the negotiation, calculating that she would charm voters by so doing.

The British electorate denied her the mandate she wanted. From a modest but clear majority, the Conservative Party was reduced to a minority party with the largest number of seats in a hung Parliament. It was a pyrrhic victory, if it could be called a victory, causing heavy loss to her reputation and ability to make judgement.

Theresa May had to sacrifice two of her closest aides, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, described by cabinet ministers and Conservative parliamentarians as abusive and authoritarian. But the problem goes much deeper. Theresa May is a shy and secretive individual, reliant on a few loyal associates. Her spell as Prime Minister, and the seven-week general election campaign, demonstrated that she had difficulty articulating her vision, and how she would make it possible, to large audiences.

She avoided debating with opponents, and was often unable to address points directly. She either followed standard responses prepared in advance, or launched personal attacks on her rivals to deflect attention. For instance, she said that if she were not re-elected, the country would be sending Jeremy Corbyn “naked and alone” to the Brexit negotiation. And Jeremy Corbyn “will sneak into 10 Downing Street”, the Prime Minister’s official residence. Such remarks raised eyebrows.

Her tactical mistakes corroded her support base. The result of the June 2016 referendum on whether to exit the European Union was 52% – 48% in favour of leaving. An EU remainer before the referendum, her conversion into a fervent leaver was rapid. She became an advocate of severing all ties from the EU, the European Single Market and the European Court of Justice. She chose to pressure the EU into negotiating a new free trade agreement which would stop the current freedom of movement between the United Kingdom and the other 27 member-countries.

She threatened the other EU members that if she did not get her way in the negotiation, the United Kingdom could stop sharing intelligence with them. The Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, warned that British people would stop buying Italian wine. Several members of her cabinet warned that German car manufacturers would suffer if British customers stopped buying their automobiles. There was never a chance of that happening.

Irritated by attacks on the European Union for years, the EU’s patience seemed to be running out. A “divorce bill” as big as 100 billion euros was mentioned within EU circles. In London, some people talked of no payment at all. The status of several million European immigrants in the UK and British citizens living in the rest of the EU became a matter of contention. Threats were issued by both sides. As talks begin, the relationship between the two sides is far from congenial.

Theresa May played an overtly nationalistic card to draw the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s supporters towards her. She told the British people: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” This rhetoric repelled many cosmopolitan voters often travelling or living abroad. Young voters were attracted towards the main opposition Labour Party. Under its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour performed much better than expected.

Theresa May’s eagerness to cosy up with the United States President, Donald Trump, also did not help. Keen to show off the United Kingdom’s “special relationship” with America, she was hasty to fly to Washington, to be the “first foreign leader” to meet Trump, where they were seen hand-in-hand in the White House. She gave the clear impression that she was ready to abandon Britain’s EU membership, and accept ever more dependence on an erratic and unreliable American President.

She invited Trump for a state visit to the United Kingdom, generating considerable opposition at home. Trump’s frequent personal attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan, a Muslim, and Theresa May’s reluctance to express her disapproval of Trump’s remarks did not go down well in Britain. It all made her look weak. Trump’s state visit has now been put off.

Theresa May will now head a minority government, dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a hard-line protestant group, to sustain her government. DUP backed leaving the European Union in the June 2016 referendum. But it does not want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, an EU member. With her government now reduced to a minority in Parliament, Theresa May has a very weak hand in the coming Brexit negotiation.

How her political calculations failed so spectacularly will be a matter for analysis for months or longer. Many commentators, including this one, had interpreted the narrow result to leave the EU in June 2016 primarily as a vote against immigration, and the perceived burden immigrants put on the public services – immigrants who work legally in the UK to do jobs British people would not do, and pay tax.

The reality was more complex, for it was the government’s obsession to make financial cuts that did not allow more spending to meet the extra demand on the public services. It was thought that the anti-immigration sentiment whipped up by the UKIP drove the vote to leave the EU. Less than a year after, Theresa May’s Conservative Party adopted the same anti-immigrant rhetoric in the general election campaign in the hope of wooing UKIP voters.

It did not happen. Most working class voters, traditional supporters of the Labour Party, returned to their old party. It now looks as though the referendum was actually a protest vote against deep cuts in the government spending year after year, causing hardship for ordinary people. In the general election just held, Labour came out with a manifesto that promised extra spending on public services, abolition of the University tuition fee and protection for senior citizens’ pensions, financed by an increase in the corporation tax, and income tax on high income earners.

Young people, many of whom did not vote in the past, registered in vast numbers and did vote this time. Labour captured almost 65% of all votes under 40 years of age. This turnaround is both about fact and perception. Two months ago, the focus was on the Labour Party’s infighting, the electoral unacceptability of its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the image perpetuated by the right-wing press of Theresa May as a “strong and stable” leader. The picture now is the exact opposite. The Conservative Party is in disarray, and the Prime Minister, Theresa May, is seen as the loser. Governing the country has suddenly become a lot more difficult, and the government is not sure what kind of exit from the European Union to negotiate.

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Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley

CounterPunch

Things are rocky on both sides of the Atlantic. In Washington, Donald Trump’s presidency, barely a month old, has made a chaotic start, and is getting sucked into ever deeper crisis. In London, Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom which looks deeply split, is about to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus she will begin the process of Britain leaving the European Union and its associated institutions.

In the midst of rancor between an infant presidency and its detractors, the White House meeting of May and Trump, seen hand in hand, was an extraordinary and rare demonstration of mutual love only a week after trump’s inauguration. A month on, it seems a long time ago.

Let us remind ourselves about what has happened in the past month. Donald Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp.” The exodus of officials from numerous federal departments and agencies that keep the United States government functioning has been dramatic. Instead, Trump has created his own little swamp, which he has found difficult to fill.

First, the National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out after revelations that he had held telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, while President Barack Obama was still in office and Flynn was in Trump’s transition team. That in one telephone conversation Flynn discussed the sanctions President Obama had imposed on the same day was bad enough. What sealed Flynn’s fate was that he then lied to Vice President Mike Pence, who then publicly defended Flynn saying that there had been no discussion with the Russian ambassador about the sanctions.

Flynn was also interviewed by the FBI soon after Trump’s inauguration, and had given a similar account to the agency. Following leak after leak, speculation has become relentless that over the past year other Trump associates have had constant and repeated dealings with the Russians. President Trump’s plan to appoint a friendly individual as intelligence supremo to investigate and identify sources responsible for leaks shows how much the working relationship between the White House and the intelligence services has broken down. The consequences of this breakdown for Britain’s formidable intelligence headquarters GCHQ could be serious in the light of the UK’s disengagement from the European Union.

Second, Andrew Puzder, billionaire CEO of a fast-food restaurant chain, withdrew his nomination as Trump’s Labor Secretary because of intense criticism of him in the Senate prior to his confirmation hearings. Third, Trump’s choice to refill the national security adviser’s post, Robert Harward, turned down the offer despite the president’s repeated efforts to persuade him. And then, David Petraeus, once a celebrated army general, dropped out of the race for Trump’s national security adviser.

Petraeus has been on probation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge after revelations of an extramarital affair and mishandling of classified material with his lover. It is as clear as daylight that President Trump is beleaguered and faces struggle to establish his authority like few of his predecessors.

For Prime Minister Theresa May to fly to Washington within a week of Trump’s inauguration was both an act of political expediency and perilous haste. He was mercifully courteous before television cameras. She was anxious to say, again and again, that she was there to “renew the special relationship” between the United States and Britain. She boasted in front of cameras that she had secured President Trump’s full commitment to NATO in private talks. Right up to his election, Trump had described NATO as obsolete, and threatened to reduce Washington’s commitment to defending smaller, more vulnerable countries of the alliance if they did not spend more money on defense.

Trump remained silent on the matter while his guest went ahead to announce that the American president had given a firm commitment to NATO. Barely two weeks later, Trump’s Defense Secretary, James Mattis, taking Trump’s original line, said that unless other alliance members spent more, America would “moderate” its commitment to their defense. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s blunt response was that Germany would not accelerate its existing, long-term plan to gradually increase military spending despite America’s demand to do so by the end of 2017.

Vice President Mike Pence immediately picked up where Mattis had left, making clear that he was delivering Donald Trump’s message. Apparently referring to Germany, France and Italy, the American Vice President said, “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path.  The time has come to do more.”

So, we have turmoil in Washington; unprecedented tensions between the United States and NATO; and the European Union. Nonetheless, Britain’s Prime Minister looks determined to make a clean break from the European Union and all its institutions, and follow Trump’s America. It is a dangerous path.

Less than a year ago, Theresa May advocated Britain’s continued membership of the EU that gave the country access to the world’s largest market. Now, she is a passionate leader who will lead Britain out of the European Union and its economic, social, environmental and judicial instruments. She will accept estrangement from immediate European neighbors, but much greater reliance on a superpower governed by an isolationist, unpredictable president more than three thousand miles away across the Atlantic.

She will explore the “brave new world” more than half a century after Britain lost its empire, and ceased to rule the oceans. All with a small army and naval force smaller than those of the United States, Russia, China and Japan, and only slightly bigger than the French navy. Britain has nuclear weapons, but it cannot conceivably use them without America’s consent.

A country is never more vulnerable than when there is just one guarantor and not enough room for manoeuvre.

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