by GK Strategy 9th June, 2017
3 min read

From ‘strong and stable’ to shock and uncertainty – David Laws’ thoughts on the general election

Shock and uncertainty. Those are the two words we can most associate with the outcome of the June 2017 UK General Election. “Shock”, because just weeks ago many respected political commentators were expecting Corbyn’s Labour Party to be swept away in an avalanche of Tory votes, with the Labour vote share falling below 25%, against today’s extraordinary 40% outcome. “Uncertainty”, because the UK’s hung parliament has now created the most politically uncertain scenario in the UK for 40 years.  How long this Parliament will last; whether Theresa May can continue as PM; what the Government’s new Brexit strategy will be; and whether there might after all be a second referendum – all these things are now in question.

In some ways, where we are today might feel like the scenario we faced as a nation in 2010 – when I helped negotiate the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition. On both occasions, a Tory leader failed to gain a majority against a supposedly highly unpopular Labour leader. And in both scenarios, a “progressive coalition” of centre-left and leftish parties did not quite have the votes needed to command a parliamentary majority.  But there the similarities end: in 2010, it was possible to form a stable, formal, long-term coalition, with a very healthy parliamentary majority. In 2017, a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats is neither likely, and nor would it produce a large majority – instead, some form of arrangement with the DUP awaits, resulting in only a very small cushion for Theresa May in the House of Commons. If just a few Conservative or DUP MPs decide to rebel, the parliamentary majority is wiped out.

This new electoral arithmetic means that the bold mandate that Theresa May wanted has been denied her. A whole host of controversial policies might now have to be consigned to the political waste paper basket – from withdrawing winter heating payments from the elderly, to extracting more money from elderly people to pay for social care, to axing free school meals, to the plans to increase the numbers of selective schools. As George Osborne remarked last night, we are about to hear again that devastating phrase that was used to describe John Major’s 1992-97 government – “in office, but not in power.” The Treasury will hate it – delivering deficit reduction will now be much harder, as each tough decision has to be judged against its ability to command a parliamentary majority.

Avoiding unpopular votes in the Commons is, though, just the easy bit. Theresa May claimed to be holding an early election to secure a large majority in order to deliver her form of relatively hard Brexit.   For whatever reasons, the British people have denied May that mandate. The other EU nations now know that they are dealing with a seriously weakened Government and a PM who has lost credibility – they will now be tougher, knowing that Mrs May will be stranded between pleasing hard line anti-European MPs and having to keep her pro-remain colleagues on board. What Brexit will now look like, and even whether there will be a second referendum or “Brexit election”, is now all highly uncertain.

Many journalists have speculated that Mrs May would have to resign and would struggle to form a Government. Neither is necessarily true, if Tory MPs decide to stick with the leader they know, and if the DUP decides its interests can be served by propping up a Tory administration and with Tory MPs unlikely to relish the prospects of a second general election anytime soon, it is possible the current Government could be longer lasting than expected. The threat Mrs May and her Government now face is not so much survival, but the ability to operate, take decisions, and secure a good Brexit deal – when other countries have all the cards to play.

No one can yet tell what the consequences of yesterday’s election will be, and whether the shock result has increased or reduced the long-term Brexit risks to the UK economy. “Strong and stable” is exactly what the UK government is no longer capable of delivering.

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