If you’re curious about how Brits pronounce America’s sacred word covfefe, this week’s answer is “Theresa May.” She didn’t need to call the snap election that cost her Conservative Party its modest but secure parliamentary majority on Thursday, producing a hung parliament and obliging her to try to form a minority government with backing from Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 seats make up the difference. In fact, she’d promised to do no such thing after she became prime minister last year.
Remember, May ended up occupying No. 10 Downing Street via, essentially, a comedy of errors—that is, once David Cameron unexpectedly resigned rather than oversee the U.K.’s exit from the European Union. Then his obvious successor, Brexit-boosting Tory charlatan Boris Johnson, got cold feet and bailed out of seeking the job. (He’s now May’s loose-cannon Foreign Secretary instead.) Really, it wouldn’t have been so hard for her to just bumble along until Britain’s next scheduled election in 2020, by which time familiarity with her might have made up for the accidental nature of her premiership.
But she wanted a mandate of her own, and—thanks to the opposition’s disarray, if nothing else—she looked virtually sure to get one back in April. Only two months ago, the Tories led the Labour Party, headed by the unpopular and divisive leftist ideologue Jeremy Corbyn, by a whopping 20 points in the polls. Then May turned out to be such a wooden and peevish campaigner that she achieved the near impossible: she made Corbyn seem attractive, or at least the lesser evil, by comparison. Instead of hemorrhaging seats in a Conservative triumph, as Corbyn’s party was widely expected to do, Labour added 31 new ones. Even if May holds on (just barely) to power, she’s much weakened now, and Corbyn’s standing as the opposition’s leader is immeasurably enhanced.
What the U.S. and the U.K. now have most in common is that the rest of the world can no longer count on either of them.
Remarkably, she’s managed to duplicate Cameron’s own miscalculation in calling for a Brexit referendum a year ago without making any contingency plans for what would happen if he lost it. That disastrous gamble, of course, is what got the U.K. into this mess in the first place. Because May has no choice, the Brexit negotiations will go on, but minus any popular consensus that they’re a good idea. Even if preference for a so-called “soft” Brexit prevails over the “hard” one May advocated during the campaign, the current hope that Britain can somehow retain all the advantages of E.U. membership without any of its downsides seems almost Trumpian in its disconnection from reality.
On top of that, even assuming she keeps her job—something that isn’t settled yet, certainly not in the long term—Britain now has a quasi-invalid government that can’t be relied on to play a forceful or coherent role in any other area of international concern, from coping with Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate accords to collective security in the face of Vladimir Putin’s eagerness to undermine NATO and discredit Western democracies in general. That was true to some extent before yesterday’s election, thanks to May’s ineffectuality and her cabinet’s shortage of convincing talent for governance. But it’s a bigger problem now, leaving France and Germany to take up even more of the slack leadership-wise—which means, in turn, that we’d better hope their own governments stay relatively stable and sturdy.
That’s partly because ours isn’t in such hot shape these days. The latest twist in Britain’s fabled “special relationship” with the United States is that we seem to be tottering into political dysfunction together, from similarly polarized and rancorous electorates to similarly floundering, handicapped and disrespected leaders. What the U.S. and the U.K. now have most in common is that the rest of the world can no longer count on either of the planet’s foremost English-speaking countries to be responsible partners in dealing with much of anything, let alone look to us for any sort of guidance. Nor can there be much doubt that the postwar order we took the lead in constructing is truly coming apart, maybe irreparably. There hasn’t been such an unnerving collapse of international faith in the trustworthiness of the top tier of the world’s democracies in 80 years, and nobody knows what the consequences will be. Since the major consequence the last time around was World War II, let’s root for something less drastic, shall we?
The hope that Britain can retain all the advantages of E.U. membership without any of its downsides seems almost Trumpian.
Although it’s certainly a possibility, even May’s departure from office if her stratagem to retain power fails probably wouldn’t improve the situation much. Now that she’s driven the party into this ditch, some if not most Tory M.P.s would probably love to be rid of her, and The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson was already taking soundings last night about his prospects of replacing her. But that would mean installing yet another prime minister who’s been chosen by a party conclave without, as the Brits say, “going to the country” for validation, which would, in turn, undoubtedly prompt yet another snap election in the not too distant future. Besides, if Johnson is the top contender to take over the job—and no other candidates have emerged yet—the Conservative party might as well blow its collective brains out right now.
The next week or so should tell the tale, partly because nobody knows how tenuous or not the Democratic Unionist support May needs to stay in office will be. By far the unlikeliest scenario, needless to say, is that Corbyn could somehow assemble a coalition that enables him to take over instead if she falls short. So far as we can tell, every British politico who spent last night hastily working out the possible combinations of minor parties that might give him a majority concluded that the numbers just didn’t add up. But if we’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that there’s no such thing as “unlikely” anymore.