Thursday’s election in the United Kingdom last night ended in shock, with no party winning a clear majority. Prime Minister Theresa May’s party, the Conservatives, or Tories, appear to have lost 12 seats, sacrificing the clear (if slim) majority they previously had, while the opposition Labour party, led by the far-left Jeremy Corbyn, has gained 31 seats.
The results were a huge victory for progressives in the United Kingdom and will significantly alter the course of the country’s politics.
1) How did we get here?
May initially called the snap election to solidify support and gain a clear mandate going into Brexit negotiations. The country wasn’t set to have elections until 2020, but in a parliamentary system like the United Kingdom’s, elections can be called at any time.
When May called for the election, it seemed like a good plan — the Tories were polling well, and the controversies surrounding Corbyn (notorious for his far-left economic views and perceived ties to groups like Hezbollah and the IRA) were dogging Labour. Even within his own party, Corbyn was deeply unpopular going into the election, leaving the Tories highly optimistic about their odds.
But a number of missteps tripped May’s party, the most major of which was an effort to require higher-income people to pay for in-home health care services themselves. Dubbed the “dementia tax” because of its likely impact on the elderly, the move marked a shift away from the United Kingdom’s progressive approach to health care and sparked immediate backlash. Shortly thereafter, the Tories removed it from the party manifesto — creating an impression of May as unreliable and dishonest.
Anti-May sentiment, coupled with general dissatisfaction towards the government, seems to have spelled doom for the Tories at the polls. Which leads us to….
2) Who won last night?
Technically, the Tories scored the most seats. As of Friday morning, the party has 318 seats, followed by Labour with 261. But Britain’s Parliament doesn’t work the way the U.S. government does. In order to secure a majority, parties need an outright majority (326 seats) in the House of Commons, Parliament’s lower house. The House of Commons is somewhat like the U.S. House of Representatives, only more powerful. Voters select Members of Parliament, or MPs, based on where they live. Whichever party wins a majority of seats in the House of Commons then selects the prime minister.
But winning a majority isn’t the same as actually winning, something last night clearly illustrates. Going into the election, the Tories had 330 seats, a very narrow majority that has now vanished. As of Friday, it’s clear that no party achieved the number of seats necessary to govern without assistance from other parties.
Bottom line: Britain has a hung parliament.
3) What’s a hung parliament, and how will this work?
A hung parliament occurs when no party achieves an outright majority in the House of Commons. The U.K. has only had six hung parliaments since 1900, the most recent of which occurred in 2010.
When there’s a hung parliament, the leader of the largest single party gets the first shot at assembling a new government. Typically, this involves either joining together with other parties to form a coalition government, or arranging a deal whereby other parties agree to support the largest party on vital issues (like the budget) in exchange for concessions on other matters. Either way, the party forming a government will be asked to make less than ideal compromises, while governing without a clear mandate.
With the Tories still a physical majority, May is still the prime minister — so the task now falls to her to form the next government.
4) How is May going to form a government and stay in office?
On Friday, May confirmed that she intends to remain prime minister. “At this time more than anything else, this country needs a period of stability,” she said, citing the turbulence Britain is set to face in the coming years.
But her resolve may not be enough to keep her in power. The election was a harsh blow to the Tories, something the party won’t forget — or the opposition. Corbyn called on May to resign Thursday night, citing the election results as a referendum on her leadership. “If there is a message from tonight’s results, it’s this: the prime minister called this election because she wanted a mandate,” he said. “Well, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence.”
Corbyn’s not wrong. With their narrow majority now deflated, the Tories are now in a precarious political position.
Still, according to the Independent, the prime minister emerged from a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II this morning pledging that her party would last “the next five years,” while emphasizing her commitment to “cracking down on the ideology of Islamist extremism and all those who support it,” a reference to recent extremist attacks in Manchester and London.
Without a clear majority, forming a government is a challenge for one party alone. This makes a coalition government the most likely option. Unfortunately for the Tories, they have only two natural allies, both of which are Northern Irish Unionist parties — the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP.) At one point, there was another potential option: the Liberal Democrats, a center-left party that has worked with the Tories before. But party leader Tim Farron has nixed any possibility of a coalition government.
So, the Tories will need a Northern Irish party. And as of Friday morning, they’ve got one: the DUP, which picked up 10 seats in the election. May said she looks forward to working “with our friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist Party.”
As one DUP source told the Guardian, “[w]e want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable. For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM.”
5) On that note: what’s the DUP?
A right-wing sectarian Northern Irish party, the Democratic Unionist Party is the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, but notably small in the House of Commons. As a party, the DUP is pretty far-right — opposing same-sex marriage and abortion and favoring climate denial. Politician Trevor Clarke argued in 2016 that only queer people could contract HIV/AIDS, while climate change denier (and former DUP environment minister) Sammy Wilson has called climate change a “con.”
The party also has a history of racism and Islamophobia. In 2014, Northern Ireland’s then-first minister, DUP member Peter Robinson, was asked to publicly apologize after calling Islam the “spawn of the devil.”
Notably, the DUP campaigned for Brexit, and while the party differs with the Tories on more than one issue, its leaders have a priority: making sure Corbyn isn’t prime minister. As one DUP source told the Guardian, “[w]e want there to be a government. We have worked well with May. The alternative is intolerable. For as long as Corbyn leads Labour, we will ensure there’s a Tory PM.”
6) Okay… but how does this effect Brexit negotiations?
Actually, it could have a big impact.
With the DUP joining a Tory government, Brexit talks could be swayed. May initially opted for a “hard” Brexit — meaning prioritizing immigration concerns and closed borders at the expense of full access to the European Union’s single market and customs union. This option also means Britain would likely rely on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules when making trade deals with European partners. It’s a plan that could leave British products subject to tariffs and an uptick in bureaucracy. By contrast, a “soft” Brexit, the option preferred by many who voted to remain part of the European Union, would allow for the country to remain part of the single market, along the lines of non-E.U. countries like Norway, which still enjoy E.U. economic perks. However, this agreement would likely also mean accepting free movement of goods, services, capital, and, of course, people — meaning the immigration many in favor of Brexit sought to avoid would continue.
While DUP isn’t exactly a bastion of multicultural tolerance, party leader Arlene Foster has indicated her party has no interest in a hard Brexit. “No-one wants to see a ‘hard’ Brexit,” Foster said following the election. Instead, her party wants a plan to leave the European Union that finds “a way that respects the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland and our shared history and geography with the Republic of Ireland.”
Her reasoning is obvious. Brexit arguably hit Northern Ireland harder than much of Britain, in no small part because of its precarious relationship with the Republic of Ireland. After years of violence, a hard-won peace process has softened the border, allowing for free movement and a measure of calm. If that border is harmed by a hard Brexit, Northern Ireland could suffer damning consequences, something the DUP will avoid at all costs.
Another factor weighing on the Brexit process is of course the European Union. Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, pushed for the Brexit process to continue without delay after the election.
“As far as the Commission is concerned we can open negotiations tomorrow morning at half past nine,” Juncker said. “First we have to agree on the divorce and exit modalities, and then we have to envisage the architecture of our future relations. I do hope that the result of the elections will have no major impact on the negotiations we are desperately waiting for.”
Meanwhile, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini didn’t mince words following the results.
“One year after their referendum, we still don’t know the British position in the negotiations on Brexit and it seems difficult to predict when we will,” she said.