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  Opinion   Columnists  10 Jun 2017  A setback for May, but she’ll battle to carry on

A setback for May, but she’ll battle to carry on

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Jun 10, 2017, 12:28 am IST
Updated : Jun 10, 2017, 12:28 am IST

Theresa May has made it clear though snubbed and rejected she might be, but she has no intention of stepping down.

British Prime Minister Theresa May
 British Prime Minister Theresa May

The market would have been buzzing frantically if a general election in India had deprived the ruling party of its majority and resulted in a hung Parliament. I don’t mean the commercial market, which has already mauled the sterling, but the market in political horseflesh. The dozen or so seats that Theresa May, the humbled Tory Prime Minister, needs to reach the magic figure of 326 in a 650-member House of Commons, could arguably have been mobilised with promises of portfolios and perks, to say nothing of cash changing hands. But not in the Mother of Parliaments, where the 10 Democratic Unionist Party members from Northern Ireland who can bail out Ms May are playing hard to get — although on strictly political grounds.

Their concern — a concern that extends not just across Britain’s political spectrum but to Brussels, headquarters of the 28-nation European Union — is over Brexit. When Britain does leave the EU, Northern Ireland will have a land border with the Republic of Ireland which is a EU member. In the north, Scotland might demand another referendum on independence of the government in London. Other such problems relating to immigration, the single economic zone, trade and investment will need careful handling. Some Brussels officials are eager to get on with the Brexit negotiations with a Prime Minister in command of her party. But there is also a thread of gleeful calculation that it might be easier to deal with a weakened British government.

 

Carl Bildt, a former Swedish PM, put it with brutal frankness. The election result “could be messy” for Britain, he said. It’s the “price” Britain will have to pay “for lack of true leadership”. But while everyone is baying for Ms May’s blood (and colleagues like Boris Johnson are suspected to be sharpening their knives), the most important feature of this election should be a source of hope and encouragement to people in democracies everywhere. It’s that the 12 million-plus Britons who voted for the Labour Party, led by the formerly despised and denigrated Jeremy Corbyn, clearly yearn for the kinder, gentler Britain that Clement Attlee’s Welfare State ushered in after the Second World War.

 

While the Conservative manifesto followed the right-wing chauvinism that politicians like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump have made fashionable with Ms May’s “Stand Up For Britain” slogan, Labour’s rallying call was “For The Many, Not the Few”. The high turnout of almost 69 per cent, the highest since 1997, may partly have been because this slogan resonated with voters. Many of those who braved Thursday’s heavy rains to cast their vote were young men and women who have no personal experience of the Labour Party’s caring philosophy that owes much to the vision of Keir Hardie, one of the party’s founders 117 years ago. But they have suffered since Margaret Thatcher’s capitalist revolution became the driving creed of Tony Blair’s so-called New Labour. Free education was stopped and subsidies for medical care, housing and social welfare drastically reduced.

 

In contrast, the Labour manifesto promised to restore many aspects of the dismantled Welfare State and even to nationalise undertakings like the railways. It’s surprising no previous political leader has thought of these reforms despite glaring evidence of mismanagement. The number of homeless people huddled in doorways in the bitter winter cold was one indictment of Thatcher-Blair economics. Reckless privatisation produced chaos on the rails. When trains were cancelled halfway through a journey, a wayside stationmaster once explained to me that the Thatcher government had sold the trains and lines to one company and the stations to another — whichever paid more — and they didn’t always coordinate their activities.

 

Moreover, belying the harsh and constant criticism of the chattering classes, the seemingly lacklustre Mr Corbyn showed himself to be a forceful and inspiring speaker able to rally the multitude. He has never been popular in Westminster. But even his critics now concede that he has the common touch. His enhanced prestige confirms again that in politics, as in life, nothing succeeds like success. Of course he has not won enough seats to form a government but Labour’s strong position in the Commons may allow him to influence policy, specially in the negotiations to leave the EU.

Ms May called the election to further strengthen her position in discussing terms with Brussels, in the wake of three devastating terrorist attacks in three months. In her final message on Thursday, she pleaded with voters to back her in the Brexit negotiations, adding: “If we get Brexit right, we can build a Britain that is more prosperous and more secure. A Britain in which prosperity and opportunity is shared by all. A Britain where it’s not where you come from or who your parents are that matter, but the talent you have and how hard you are prepared to work.” She called it “the greatest meritocracy in the world”.

 

The majority she inherited from David Cameron would not have been lost if voters had believed her. As home minister, she had cut welfare while claiming she wasn’t doing so. When Mr Cameron was PM, she, like him, was in the Remain camp, but quickly — and unapologetically — turned her coat when 52 per cent favoured Brexit in the referendum. She categorically denied any intention of calling a snap election, but did just that as soon as the opinion polls gave her grounds to hope she could better her parliamentary majority. The final touch is post-election. It’s recalled that in a similar dilemma, Edward Heath lost no time in calling at Buckingham Palace to resign. In the best style of Indian politicians, however,

 

Ms May has made it clear though snubbed and rejected she might be, but she has no intention of stepping down.

Tags: theresa may, brexit, david cameron