SAILING ON THE TITANIC AND CREATING AN ICEBERG.
As I write June is not even half-over and already there have been events to note.
Leo Varadkar has just been sworn in as Ireland’s fourteenth Taoiseach. He is openly gay and the son of an immigrant Indian doctor, neither of which caused comment inside or outside his campaign to become leader of Fine Gael, Ireland’s traditionally more conservative party – an example of how far we have matured as a society. There has certainly been (much) criticism of Varadkar from outside Fine Gael, but this has been of his perceived conservative positions on economic and social issues. He has already established a reputation as a political bruiser who doesn’t suffer fools or half-baked policies or criticisms. We shall see how he handles the complex business of stewarding a minority government, particularly one with such precarious support.
Any urge he might have to go to the country to seek his own mandate will be tempered by a long hard look at what has been happening in Britain. Prime Minister Teresa May called an unnecessary election for June 8, bolstered by a massive lead in the opinion polls, ostensibly to receive a strong mandate for the imminent Brexit negotiations, and facing a demoralised opposition Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, an unpopular left-wing figure.
Moreover the realities of the electoral structures of the UK political system rendered it just about impossible for Labour actually to win any election on its own; and so it proved. But this was not the story. At the end of the day the Tories lost 13 seats to finish at 318, by far the largest party but tantalisingly short of the magical 328 needed for an absolute majority.
May will now have to enter the most difficult negotiations Britain has had for half a century as leader of a minority government dependent for survival on the North’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However she may package it, the near defeat, even though she almost “won,” has undermined any programme of getting tough with Brussels. And that’s not all. Arguably the coups de grace to her prospects were delivered by two Islamist terror attacks in the last weeks of the campaign, leaving her to defend her own, and her party’s, record on security and with the prospect of having as a priority to take measures to minimise the chances of another murderous attack.
The Tory campaign, solely down to May, who called it and whose chief advisers have already been shown the door, was virtually a textbook example of how not to run an election. Firstly, the timing. As well as getting a strong negotiating mandate, May’s decision was probably motivated to give time post Brexit for the anticipated negative political and economic consequences to bed down with the electorate. It made some sense, certainly, but was a calculated gamble, an unnecessary leap in the dark. Moreover it discounted or ignored the growing post-referendum public awareness that Brexit would involve no easy future and that the Leave campaign had been less than honest.
Secondly the Manifesto, where, again, hubris seems to have played a part, was a disaster electorally. Perceived as an attack on the Welfare State, any welfare proposals were to be financed from savings in welfare elsewhere, including, crucially, from the elderly. Those receiving home care in their homes would henceforth have to pay, if necessary by recouping any monies owed by selling the home after death. Winter fuel allowances were to be means-tested. Elsewhere free school lunches were to be cut. The resulting uproar led to a rapid U-turn by May who promised to have the provisions regarding the elderly – dubbed by the media a “Dementia Tax” – reviewed. By then, however, the damage had been done. The thrust of the measures would be to cut the elderly middle classes – predominantly Tory voters –adrift from much state funding. By contrast Labour’s manifesto, secure in the knowledge that it would never be implemented, proposed a dubiously costed education, health, and welfare spending bonanza, to be financed by increasing taxes on the wealthy.
Thirdly the campaign itself, where May was exposed as a lacklustre performer bereft of charisma. As the opinion polls showed the Tory lead shortening, she seemed unable to respond, her great project – negotiating on Brexit – failing to fire the imagination and generating considerable uncertainly and misgivings about where the process was going and to what end. Corbyn, no great performer himself, nevertheless came across as more relaxed and as sticking to a consistent message. His curious strategy of visiting and speaking at Labour strongholds rather than barnstorming in marginals seemed to pay off; the media showed him addressing large numbers whereas May’s audiences seemed to be small.
Fourthly, the unforeseen. She might still have pulled it off – to the end the opinion polls showed the Tories ahead. But “events” intervened. The terrible mass murder of 22, including children at a concert, by a suicide bomber in Manchester on 22 May shifted the campaign permanently away from Brexit. The new focus was security, an area where May was found wanting and was immediately on the defensive. As Home Secretary for six years – her only previous Ministerial experience – she had presided over the reduction of 20,000 in the numbers of police nationally. Whether the extra police would have ensured protection from a secretive murderous religious zealot is moot; but the issue did not go away. Compared to safety on the streets Brexit was irrelevant.
The London Bridge atrocity just five days before polling day was another hammer blow. Once again terrorists had got through; only the rapid mobilisation of armed police had restricted the slaughter. The unposed, unanswered question was clear. A panicked May spoke of severe new legislation, including curbing some human rights. The election results left her severely damaged politically. She now has to govern from a position of weakness. Most pundits give her six months to a year.
There will be exhaustive analysis of what this election signifies. Labour came to within a million votes of the Tories, recording its second highest total (12,878,985) since 1966. However it would be premature to hail Corbyn as the Second Coming. Certainly more young people voted (Labour promised to abolish college fees), and probably fewer elderly. The UKIP vote collapsed, the LibDems stabilised. Both the major parties secured over 40%, heralding perhaps a return to the traditional two-party system (something else Varadkar should note). Evident was the public fear that the British Welfare state was facing attack from an arrogant, insulated, monied elite. The surge of disillusionment and alienation evident in the Brexit vote has not gone away.
It promises to be hard pounding all round, both in Britain and here, with no honeymoon for the new Taoiseach. When our neighbour catches cold we get the flu. Compounding everything else, the revelation that at least one of the London Bridge attackers had lived and married in Ireland has raised questions about our own security and vulnerability to terrorist attack. It has also focussed attention on Ireland as a safe haven and the Common Travel Area as a potential back door for Islamic terrorists to enter Britain. Big Boys Games, Leo.