July 1st 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY 'Safe Schools' and every school's duty of care

CANBERRA OBSERVED Catholic education: not gone but Gonski'd

EDITORIAL Oh dear, Prime Minister, Brexit is harder now

ELECTRICITY Blueprint author did not ask about the weather

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Call for referendum after Taiwan court backs same-sex marriage

EUTHANASIA Death-dealing bills break out like hydras' heads

GENDER POLITICS New breed of young women takes on the United Nations

CULTURE AND HISTORY The past is a foreign country

LITERATURE The Road to Wigan Pier and the roads beyond

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY The 'Brisbane line' and other scandals

MUSIC Carla Bley: sophisticated lady

CINEMA Churchill: The regrets of a Lear

BOOK REVIEW Charting 15 years of changing emphases


GENDER POLITICS The Pied Pipers of gender dysphoria

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Oh dear, Prime Minister, Brexit is harder now

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, July 1, 2017

The outcome of the British election, in which the Conservatives lost seats but still ended up with a clear margin over Labour, will make the job of British Prime Minister Theresa May more difficult.

Mrs May’s plan in calling the election three years early was to secure her own mandate in the upcoming negotiations over Brexit. She took over when David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister after the country voted to leave the European Union last year.

Mrs May also hoped to capitalise on her own popularity as the new Prime Minister, and to take advantage of the unpopularity of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which put the Conservatives 20 per cent ahead of Labour two months before the election.

However, the public mood swung hard against the Conservatives during the election campaign.

The key issue was not Brexit, as both the Conservatives and Labour were committed to respecting the vote of the 2016 referendum. There were differences, with Labour supporting a “soft” Brexit, while Mrs May supported a “hard” Brexit, in which Britain would walk away if she was unable to negotiate a good deal with the EU.

The clearest sign that the election outcome was unrelated to Brexit was seen in Scotland, where the strongly pro-EU Scottish Nationalist Party, which has demanded a referendum on taking Scotland out of the UK, suffered a major setback, losing 24 seats in the House of Commons to both Labour and the Conservatives.

Domestic issues

The Conservatives lost seats in the election mainly on domestic issues, including Labour’s successful campaign to project the Tories as hard-hearted opportunists who would introduce a “dementia tax” on elderly people, to cut spending on the NHS, the National Health Scheme.

Like Medicare in Australia, governments in the UK tamper with the NHS at their peril. The Conservatives proposed to make more elderly people pay for their own health care, whether at home or in nursing homes, by including the value of their own home in their assets.

Faced with a massive public backlash, Mrs May backed away from the plan during the election campaign but, by then, the damage had been done.

Additionally, the Government suffered from the effects of the Manchester and London terrorist attacks, which occurred during the campaign. It seemed that the Government was incapable of protecting the public.

The protest parties that had secured a significant vote in the 2015 election – particularly the UK Independence Party and the Scottish Nationalists – suffered a large decline, with many of their voters drifting to both the Conservatives and Labour. And finally, Mrs May seemed arrogant in refusing to participate personally in a televised public debate with leaders of the other parties.

The effect of all this was that the Conservatives lost 13 seats, Labour won 30, and the Conservatives will depend on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to have a working majority in the House of Commons.

One paradoxical result of the election is that Jeremy Corbyn, the far-left leader of the British Labour Party who was regarded as unelectable before the campaign but won the enthusiastic support of many first-time voters, is now securely entrenched as Labour’s leader for the foreseeable future, although he lacks support from many of his parliamentary colleagues.

The problem for Theresa May is that her narrow parliamentary majority restricts her negotiating power with the EU, and will force her to adopt a more accommodating attitude in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

Paradoxically, her position may be helped by the decisive victory of Emmanuel Macron, a strong supporter of the EU, in the French election, and the defeat of the anti-EU campaign led by Marine Le Pen.

Because Britain retained its own currency, the pound sterling, it was always easier to envisage Britain pulling out of the EU than France. But Macron’s victory, following the defeat of anti-EU campaigners in earlier elections in the Netherlands, means that there is now no imminent danger that the EU will disintegrate. This may permit negotiations between Britain and the EU to take place without the drama that would otherwise accompany it.

To secure parliamentary support to invoke the Treaty of Lisbon’s Article 50, which began the process of withdrawal from the EU, Mrs May promised that the British Parliament would vote on the terms of withdrawal.

With only a narrow margin in the House of Commons, and widely differing positions within her own party on the issue, it is not clear that Mrs May will be able to get a majority in the House of Commons, unless she can secure support from some Labour defectors.

This itself will force the British Prime Minister towards Labour’s negotiating position. There is a two-year period for negotiations and, although the Treaty of Lisbon is not completely clear, it suggests that a member state can automatically withdraw if there is no agreement. We are in uncharted waters.

Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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