May’s failed gamble

The humbling of the Conservatives in the general election suggests how far Britain’s political landscape has shifted since the Brexit vote. Clearly shaken by the results Prime Minister Theresa May nevertheless harped on the need for stability, as though somehow she were innocent of the unnecessary campaign the country had just endured. Like David Cameron before her, May tried to settle internal party divisions through a national poll, only to create a crisis larger than the one she hoped to solve. With the prospect of a hung parliament and another squabble among the Tory leadership, all that the British public has learned from the experience is that no party can yet transcend the country’s growing divisions on immigration, the maintenance of the welfare state, economic austerity and social marginalization.

Nobody familiar with British tabloids would be surprised to learn that on the eve of the election the Sun railed against the Labour leader’s alleged association with an “Islamic hate mob”, that the Daily Mail called him an “apologist for terror” and that the Express told its readers that if they didn’t vote Tory, “we face disaster.” The failure of these smears is a sign that the British in general, and young voters in particular are less susceptible to the politics of fear, but it is also a reminder of how easily modern societies succumb to such rhetoric. Within the last two years both the tone and quality of broadcast political coverage has also noticeably deteriorated and campaigns have become nearly indistinguishable from brand advertising.

The debasement of political discourse has been the signature achievement of the Trump administration; so much so that more sophisticated politicians, including some in Britain and Europe, have tried to copy the President’s style. Trump’s ability to talk in language that a fourth-grade student could understand was a significant part of his appeal, but just as significant were his childish oversimplifications of complex issues. Trump’s contempt for governance and expertise, was profoundly similar to the Leave campaign’s many misrepresentations in the run-up to Brexit, and a great deal of the political backlash has come from the public’s growing exasperation with shallow arguments. In a much-quoted remark, Conservative MP Michael Gove declared that “People in this country have had enough of experts.” It now seems that in the wake of May’s charmless leadership they are also running out of patience with mere politicians.

Instead of the triumph she sought, May looks set to govern weakly with a coalition tailor-made to further undermine confidence in her leadership. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) favoured a less abrupt version of Brexit but have little else in common with the Tories. Particularly sensitive – especially in light of the many smears levelled at Jeremy Corybyn – are the DUP’s links to paramilitary groups, their scepticism on climate change and their uncompromisingly retrograde views on abortion, and LGBT rights. While May, or her successor, struggles to make this awkward coupling work, her main political rival seems stronger than ever. In fact, having now seen off an acrimonious leadership struggle and led his party to an eleventh hour surge which produced a 16 per cent gain in the election, Corbyn is the one of the few politicians who has come through the experience looking like a plausible candidate for prime minister.