Before 1938 German nationalists liked to refer to Austria as Die unerwünschte Republik – the unwanted republic. The British general election which takes place on Thursday is the unwanted election. It might be called Britain’s Bourbon election as British politicians have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
There have been no surprises. Prime Minister Theresa May has been revealed as a cautious, wooden, rather mediocre politician not in the same league as a Merkel or a Macron. She has had to U-turn on key manifesto pledges and panics at the first hint of criticism from the off-shore owned press whose relentless campaigning against Europe this century helped produce the Brexit vote last June.
When she called the election six weeks ago the Conservatives were massively ahead of Labour in opinion polls. Labour was barely afloat as MPs refused to back their leftist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who ignored Parliament and instead in the traditions of Latin American or Mediterranean populism found support in angry young people mobilized against open trade, free markets based on competition, the world controlled by the denizens of Davos, and the extortionate greed of the CEOs. A number of hardline ageing admirers of Stalin moved in to take control of Corbyn’s office and the new Leader was unable to deal with the well-founded criticisms that anti-semitism and an obsessive hate of Israel were now at the heart of Corbyn’s Labour project.
British populists cannot get rid of their obsession with the Nazi era. Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, and Corbyn’s mentor in politics, insists that Hitler was a Zionist while Mrs May’s populist Foreign Secertary, Boris Johnson, writes of a “Gestapo controlled Nazi EU” and began the Brexit campaign last year by comparing the EU to the 3rd Reich.
In calling the election two years after the Conservatives won a clear majority in 2015, Mrs May had to tear up Britain’s constitutional law stipulating elections should be held at five-year intervals. She hoped the opinion polls which placed Corbyn low would help her consolidate her place in Number Ten Downing Street. She was an accidental prime minister and only won as all the big Tory beasts who won the Brexit vote which removed David Cameron could not agree on a successor. They stabbed and axed each other to death in the post-Brexit vote nights of long knives. As a carmine sea of blood rose outside Downing Street, a boat slowly appeared and Mrs May was floated into No 10.
She had made little impact in opposition. Competent, charmless, composed, but very much a lower-order shadow minister. As Home Secretary 2010-2016 she was obsessed with immigration to the point of a xenophobic distaste for the number of students coming from overseas to do their degrees in the major economic growth sector of British universities.
She disliked the fact that the European Union has been based since its founding days in the 1950s on the concept of freedom of movement of capital, goods, services, and citizens. The UK labour market as shaped by Tony Blair and all his successors was rich on employment but low in pay and skills. Employers soaked up as many cheap European workers as they could find just as in past years Irish, and then Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi workers poured into Britain in 1950-1990 to do all the jobs the true-born Englishman wouldn’t touch.
The difference this century was that populist right (and some left) politicians had a target to blame for immigration – the enlarged European Union. Nonetheless Mrs May did not join the pro-Brexit Conservatives and she made speeches last year in defence of UK membership of the EU that Jean-Claude Junker’s speech writers could have drafted.
She wanted the election to confirm her right to be in Downing Street on the basis of the people’s vote, not as a result of Tory infighting after Cameron was expelled from politics following his humiliation in the Brexit plebiscite he foolishly called.
But British voters are tired of national polls – the Scottish referendum in 2014, the general election in 2015, the Brexit plebiscite in 2016, and now Mrs May’s vanity election in 2017. Britain appears like some unstable nation required to go to the polls every year like some weak, incompetent continental country.
Mrs May has control of the House of Commons. She has 330 Tory MPs compared to Labour’s 229. The Liberal Democrats have only 8 and while there are a few dozen Scottish, Northern Irish, and other MPs, the Tories rule the roost.
But still she insisted on holding her election. She targeted the 4 million UKIP voters by offering the hardest of hard Brexits, including leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. She accused the EU of “aggressive tactics” and interfering in the British election after Mrs Merkel told the Bundestag that London had the “illusion” that Brexit would be costless.
She refused the democratic norm of television debates with Corbyn or other political leaders. Her interviews were confused and shrill. For the first time the public saw her exposed day after day, not hidden behind curtains in Downing Street or buried in the corridors of the Home Office. She finishes the election much weaker than she started as her ratings went down and down. Meanwhile Corbyn accepted professional media training and started to wear a suit and tie and shoes instead of sandals and jeans. He remained the 68-year old 1968er pacifist anti-globalisation, anti-market leftist in the manner of Podemos in Spain, or Syriza in Greece. Indeed, the Narcissus of the Euroleft, Yanis Varoufakis, became his economic adviser.
As with Bernie Sanders or Jean-Luc Mélanchon, there is an audience for such prophets preaching against the evils of modern economics. Other saw this polite, middle class pensioner making points about the evils of the modern world that many agreed with.
This does not mean Jeremy Corbyn can become prime minister. The 101-seat difference between Conservative and Labour will not vanish. But Mrs May is not going to crush and eliminate Labour, and Corbyn’s honour is saved. A weekend opinion poll said the gap between Conservatives had closed to just 6 points. But that still means a gain of 33 Tory seats for Mrs May.
Neither can emerge a winner. He cannot lead Labour to power, but she cannot show the nation is united behind her and willing to endow her with a massive majority in the Commons.
What the election has not been is a re-run of the Brexit referendum. In fact, in constituencies in London, North England, and the Midlands that I have visited, voters hardly mention it. Mrs May has sought to capture UKIP votes, but Jeremy Corbyn does not oppose Brexit and also insists Labour policy is to impose immigration controls on European citizens who will have to obtain work and residence permits before coming to a Labour-run United Kingdom.
Corbyn’s capitulation to the pro-Brexit demagogues has alienated many. In London a group of Labour MPs seeking re-election have put out their own manifesto saying Labour must support staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union, as amputating Britain from its trading partners in the EU would have disastrous economic consequences.
So this election is not a re-run, a repudiation, or an endorsement of the Brexit vote a year ago. Mrs May will be confirmed as Prime Minister. Mr Corbyn’s public school leftism will have found some support. The Liberal Democrats will remain marginalized. Scotland will be run by the separatist nationalists who will lose some seats but still be dominant in the northern nation of the disunited Kingdom.
One outcome will be the end of UKIP. Now that the Tories and to a lesser extent Labour have accepted the Brexit result, are content to leave the European Union and are adopting UKIP arguments about putting up barriers to free movement, there is no point in UKIP existing.
For the EU27, the election changes nothing. On 9 June Mrs May will be back in Downing Street after this unwanted election. Then the question of Brexit can no longer be avoided. Does Britain and especially its economic actors, including the billions invested from overseas on the assumption that the UK has access to Europe for its exports, go for a full amputation from Europe? Or can new voices emerge to denounce this folly and work within the ruling Conservative party and opposition Labour Party to pull Britain back from a permanent rupture with the continent?
On this question – not the election on 8 June – will turn Britain’s future and the future of its political elite.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe and a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners in Brussels.