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Opinion article

The 2017 UK election – unlooked for, un-needed, and perplexing in its result

Dr Stewart Jackson of the University of Sydney discusses the outcome of the 2017 UK election, what the result will mean, and what we can expect from here.

When British PM Theresa May called an election in the UK (complicated by the requirement that a parliamentary vote was needed to authorise an election outside its normal five-year fixed term) the expectation was for an easy ride to the polls and a complete thrashing of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. However, May saw her 20-point lead in the opinion polls at the start of the campaign dwindle over the course of the election to an eventual two-point win on election day – 42.4 per cent v 40 per cent.

What was the actual result?

The BBC called it as 318 seats1 to the Conservatives, 262 to Labour, 35 to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), and the rest shared between various smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats (12 seats) and Northern Irish parties. This left the Conservative Party four seats short of a majority. The result saw May lose seats across England, although the party picked up a brace in Scotland at the expense of the SNP. Labour picked up seats across the mainland, while the SNP was hammered, losing 21 seats. The expected resurgence of the Liberal Democrats did not materialise, although the party recovered somewhat from its devastating 2015 election losses, and the UK Independence Party saw its vote smashed, down from 12.6 per cent to 1.8 per cent. Turnout in the election continued to rise from the nadir of the 2001 election (which saw the lowest post-war turnout of 59.4 per cent), rising 2.3 per cent to 68.7 per cent.  Much was made of this being due to increased youth voting, and certainly opinion polls appeared to bear this out, although the youngest voters were still the least likely to vote of all demographics – just that they had been even more unlikely to vote previously.

What does such a result mean?

For the UK electorate it means further uncertainty. The likelihood that May will continue as leader of the Conservative Party and therefore PM hinges on her being able to secure an expedient deal with another party, almost certainly the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).  While the DUP is the obvious choice for a “Confidence and Supply” agreement (and the party May is negotiating with), it is not without dangers, as it will be seen as favouring one side of Northern Ireland politics (something expressly forbidden in the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland). The DUP is a very socially conservative party, which will be a source of tension among the Conservative backbench. Being in such an arrangement with the DUP will raise the spectre of Edward Heath’s faltering 1974 government, and increase pressure on May to resign.

In terms of the Brexit negotiations, May is now in a weak position to negotiate. Not having a government for a week after the election, and with formal negotiations beginning on 19 June on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU means the UK negotiators will lack the political backing to argue for a strong pro-UK deal, although Secretary of State for Brexit, David Davies is sure to argue for such. This leaves the EU in the position of being able to offer what they wish. Although early commentary from EU leaders after the Brexit vote was that Britain should endure a so-called “hard” Brexit, there is also some solace from the new French President Emmanuelle Macron and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble both suggesting the door was “always open” in Brussels for the UK, should it change its mind.

In the end, May is still PM. Conservative hopeful Boris Johnston can still wish to be PM, but appears to lack the numbers as much as the party lacks the stomach for a bruising leadership fight. So May will carry through the Brexit negotiations. The important issues of what to do with the three million EU nationals in the UK and the one million Britons in Europe has to be solved. Whether there will be exit payments and what form (if any) trade relations will take is difficult to tell, but either way, Brexit, even in its currently unknown form, will continue. Talk of free trade deals between the UK and Australia are still just that,  and will depend on exactly what form the EU negotiations take – and how much Australia values its ties with the EU.

About the authors
SJ

Stuart Jackson

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Dr Stewart Jackson is a Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations, with a specialisation in Australian politics, at the University of Sydney. His broad interests cover the breadth of Green politics in Australia and the Asia Pacific, and extend to green political theory, environmental feminism, and the intersection of social movements and parliamentary politics. Prior to becoming an academic, Dr Jackson worked in the public service, community sector, and in politics as a staff and National Convenor for the Australian Greens.

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