June 9, 2017 / 8:03 AM / a year ago

Theresa May falls victim to anti-incumbent wave

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Theresa May has become the latest Western politician to suffer from an anti-incumbent backlash. The Prime Minister’s Conservative government has lost its majority in Britain’s general election. Even if it clings to power, the gamble on seeking a bigger mandate has spectacularly failed.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the media outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

May was the clear loser from results published in the early hours of June 9. She had called an election three years earlier than scheduled in an attempt to take advantage of the apparent unpopularity of her opponent, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. At the time, some opinion polls suggested the Conservatives had a 21 percentage point lead.

That advantage evaporated during May’s hapless campaign. She insisted the election was about Brexit, but failed to offer any details about Britain’s departure from the European Union. She shunned debates with rivals in favour of staged events where she repeated empty mantras about being a “strong and stable” government. She claimed to offer firm leadership, but watered down a key policy on elderly care a few days after publishing the party’s manifesto. Even if her party returns to government, May’s authority has been severely – perhaps fatally – damaged.

Obvious winners are harder to identify. Corbyn’s Labour Party has outperformed low expectations, helped by a strong turnout among younger voters. Yet it also fell far short of the 326 seats needed for a majority in the House of Commons. It’s also hard to see how Labour could form a coalition with smaller groups like the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National Party without ditching large chunks of its hard-left manifesto, which envisages the nationalisation of utilities and railways as well as higher corporate taxes.

The political calculus therefore points to an unstable government of an uncertain complexion. That could complicate negotiations with the EU, which are due to begin in earnest in a few days and must be completed by the end of March 2019. The pound dropped 1.5 percent against the U.S. dollar as the results came in.

The results defy firm policy conclusions. Poor results for the Conservatives suggest voters were lukewarm about May’s vision of a hard Brexit and tough restrictions on immigration. Labour attracted voters from both sides of last year’s referendum campaign, even though Corbyn insists the decision cannot be reversed. Yet these divisions will persist, especially if Britain’s recent poor economic performance continues.

May’s rejection of free-market values in favour of a more interventionist government now looks like a mistake. But perhaps voters just decided – as they have in so many other countries of late – to reject the incumbent administration. That is a warning for the next British government, whoever gets to form it.


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