Having accurately predicted a bad election night for the Conservatives, London’s diplomats are considering the consequences of a hung parliament for British politics and the Brexit negotiations.
EU diplomats in particular are concerned that a hung parliament and possible leadership battles will paralyse British politics and be harmful for the Brexit talks.
“A hung parliament is bad for Britain but also the EU,” one EU Ambassador told Embassy. “We are due to start negotiations and we will need to know who is on the other side of the table.”
A minority Conservative government, or a coalition, will complicate talks, another head of mission said. “It’s a problem when the Prime Minister has to battle her own party to win a vote in Parliament on the deal we come to.”
In the Embassy pre-Election poll, more than two thirds of respondents (70%) predicted that a hung parliament or even a reduced Conservative majority would likely produce a soft Brexit, due to the strengthened position of the progressive parties and a weakened position of the Tories, who will have to compromise on Prime Minister May’s hard Brexit stance.
While the results have surprised political pundits, the election survey revealed that the London diplomatic corps were more in tune with the voting intensions. Just under half of the respondents (48%) predicted that the Conservatives would not win enough seats to command a majority and one in four specifically predicted an outcome of a hung parliament.
Diplomats listed several factors that contributed to the outcome, in particular that the Conservatives ran a poor campaign.
“Theresa May is not a natural campaigner so it was a mistake to focus so much on her leadership and so little on the manifesto. This backfired when she was forced to make u-turns on social care that made people question her credibility,” remarked one Ambassador. “Not turning up for the leadership debate was an error.”
Focusing on personality and not politics made the Conservatives complacent. “It was a miscalculation to think this election would only be about Brexit when there are so many burning social issues,” reflected one EU Ambassador.
By contrast envoys were impressed with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the campaign team’s ability to change the agenda from Brexit to social issues that mattered to their followers leading to a remarkable surge in Labour party support that took diplomats by surprise.
Another key factor was Labour’s ability to galvanise the youth vote, through promises to scrap tuition fees, while by contrast the cap on social care (the so-called dementia tax) may have put off some older voters, who tend to vote Conservative.
Events such as the terrorist attacks may have had a negative impact on the incumbent, some speculated:
“One would have thought support would increase for the longest-serving Home Secretary, but the intelligence failures happened on her watch and Labour has been skilful at turning the argument around to police numbers,” commented one Ambassador.
The election has weakened Theresa May’s authority, particularly within her own party, with some diplomats predicting that there is likely to be a leadership challenge on the horizon. “The Tories are not a sentimental party and they still have Thatcher in their DNA – they don’t care for Mrs May’s centrist policies.”
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpectedly good performance – getting the highest share of the vote since Labour’s 2001 landslide – means he is secure as leader of the Party and with fewer dissenters in the Parliamentary Labour Party with the new intake of MPs.
As one ambassador put it: “May has done Corbyn a huge favour,” said one envoy. “She’s helped him clear out his enemies in Parliament.”