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Theresa May’s failure holds an important lesson

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-06-2017 Livemint

Political gambles rarely seem as certain as UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap election. With a 20-point lead in the polls and the opposition Labour Party supposedly tanking under the much maligned Jeremy Corbyn, a stronger majority to underwrite May’s Brexit strategy seemed a foregone conclusion—until it wasn’t. Certainly, May’s Conservative Party still cornered the larger share of votes and Parliament seats. But the loss of its outright majority, taken in conjunction with Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance, makes May’s victory pyrrhic at best.

The reasons for the Conservative government’s poor electoral performance under May will be teased out in the months to come. There are likely to be many, from May’s personal weaknesses as a leader, and baffling campaign choices such as an initial focus on cutting social benefits for the elderly—when older voters tend to lean conservative—to Corbyn’s canny campaigning aimed at younger voters and the subsequent spike in the youth vote that went largely to the Labour party. Some consequences and broader political trends can, however, be gleaned from the electoral result.

Firstly, this will not necessarily mean drastic changes in the Brexit road map, the initial post-result surge of optimism notwithstanding. When May triggered Article 50 on 29 March, starting the process for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), her letter stated that the UK would not be a member of the customs union or the single market. This was inevitable given that one of the core domestic concerns underlying Brexit was unrestricted immigration from other EU member-states. Free movement of labour within the EU and membership of the single market are inextricably linked in the EU’s founding “four freedoms”; it was extremely unlikely that Brussels would make any concessions to London in this regard before the election, and it remains unlikely that it will do so now.

Granted, the compulsions of May’s alliance to stay in power now—the Conservatives are working on a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which is pro-Brexit but simultaneously concerned about a hard border with Ireland—might lead her to soften her rhetoric somewhat. Perhaps she will drop the “no deal is better than a bad deal” brinkmanship. But talk of London now opting for a “soft” Brexit ignores several factors. Extensive polling carried out in the UK by social research agency NatCen late last year showed that British citizens have contradictory impulses when it comes to Brexit. They would overwhelmingly like to remain in the single market post-Brexit, but equally strongly favour curbs on immigration. Labour’s resurgence does nothing to contradict this. Corbyn is a long-time Eurosceptic, and while his rhetoric regarding Brexit has been milder than May’s, he has offered much the same vision in its broad outlines. Thus, Labour might be more accommodative of immigration when it comes to refugees—but when it comes to intra-EU labour movement, Corbyn has made it clear he will not compromise on the UK’s leaving the single market.

Talk of a softer Brexit now being viable therefore ignores both the lack of a popular mandate within the UK for allowing free immigration and the unlikelihood of Brussels compromising the union by accepting a watered down version—immigration with some manner of cap, perhaps—in return for UK’s membership in the single market.

Secondly, Labour’s resurgence points to the continuing antipathy to the politico-economic consensus of recent decades. In the decade-and-a-half from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, the Labour Party witnessed an internecine ideological struggle. It was a period that saw the erosion of the hard Left’s influence and the rise of New Labour. The latter had its apotheosis in Tony Blair, who won three elections and epitomized the new Labour strategy—indeed, what came to be conventional wisdom across the political spectrum in a number of developed economies—of triangulation and a shift to the centre. They might have quibbled about the details, but in many instances, Labour and the Conservatives were reading from the same playbook in these years—one that took economic globalization as a given.

Corbyn, on the other hand, is a throwback to the old Left and he has been successful by moving away from the centre in his economic prescriptions and his vision of the state’s role. The election, after all, was fought largely on domestic economic issues, not on Brexit. Here, as in the US and France—French President Emmanuel Macron might be a centrist but he was also a new challenger who took on the established parties—and in the rise of far Right parties across the continent, citizens have voted to upend the old consensus. In many of these instances, the ideological stances taken by Left and Right have overlapped when it comes to restrictions on free movement of labour and capital.

That, perhaps, is the most important lesson to be drawn from May’s failed gamble. The turn against the economics of globalization in developed states continues—and it makes the task of recalibrating and championing the benefits of the market even more crucial.

What do the results of the UK election mean for Brexit? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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