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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Ben Bland

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Ben Bland

Lisa Owen: The UK election result has been labelled by some commentators as a political earthquake. Prime Minister Theresa May had called a snap election, looking for a strong mandate for Brexit negotiations, but she failed to get a majority and will now scramble to put together a coalition. We’re joined now by reporter Ben Bland from London. Morning, Ben, to you. Theresa May was looking for confirmation of her mandate. What did she get instead?
Ben Bland: Well, this was the election that she didn’t ever have to actually call. I mean, just seven weeks ago she surprised everyone by announcing there would be a snap election. She was calling on the country to give her a strong mandate to increase the number of Conservative Party MPs to what she said would give her a stronger hand in the negotiations for Brexit. Instead she’s found herself with the Conservative Party losing 13 seats, now falling short of an overall majority in parliament and, although emerging as the largest party, now having to rely on a small minority party to back them up in order to get just even the very basics of legislation through. And what was interesting when we saw Theresa May outside Downing Street today after having gone to the palace to ask the Queen permission to form a government – a formality, but, you know, it’s part of the ceremonial aspect of these occasions – she then came back to Downing Street, stood outside the door, and her tone was much more humbled. She looked much more diminished, much less bullish than she did a mere seven weeks ago. Seven weeks ago she was there putting out her pitch to the country saying, ‘Vote for me and for my party for strong and stable leadership.’
That was the mantra we heard time and time again – strong and stable, strong and stable.
She says she’s not going anywhere, but how long can she, kind of, hang in there? Will her own people turn against her? Is Boris Johnson waiting in the wings?
Well, this is the cause of a lot of speculation. Let me just show you something – the evening paper here in London describing it as ‘May’s right royal mess’. I should point out the editor of this paper is George Osborne, who was the chancellor sacked by Theresa May, so perhaps a little bit of settling of scores there, but that is the question. I think part of what we saw today with Theresa May rushing – some said rather hastily – to do this deal with the minority, the Democratic Unionist Party, was perhaps to seize the initiative before people could start clamouring to call for her to go. She made it clear that she doesn’t plan to go anywhere, that she will try and lead a minority government, but really, what she’s done is the equivalent of perhaps if you or I decided, couple of years before our mortgage deal ends, let’s try and get a better deal; we go and remortgage; we end up with worse terms than what we could’ve stuck with just a little bit longer. So some will question her style and her approach. This was a very presidential style campaign. One commentator, one who worked very closely with her in the past said it’s quite surprising, given that she doesn’t like doing media, and we saw that. Theresa May decided not to go to the televised leaders’ debate. She shied away from those sort of occasions, and then you had the manifesto launch and a big policy on social care, which didn’t go down very well with some of the core voters. And some of her own MPs will question whether she relied too much on a very small core group of advisers instead of broadening and getting wider input from the rest of the party.
Well, she’s in a corner now, because her one option, obviously, for forming a government is the DUP, which is an incredibly conservative Northern Irish party. What is that going to cost her? What’s she going to have to give them to sweeten the deal?
Well, that’s the big unknown at the moment. As far as we gather, it wouldn’t be a formal coalition, as we saw back in 2010 when the Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats went into government together. This is, everyone’s expecting, really to be more of a loose supply-and-confidence arrangement. So the Democratic Unionists would support Theresa’s May government if there was a vote of confidence and on supply matters – so financial matters, budget and so on – to get the key bits of legislation through, but everything else will be up for negotiation – a bit of haggling, horse-trading. In return, the DUP would probably want a bit more money for Northern Ireland, support for their policies, and that’s where things may become a bit tricky for Theresa May, because the DUP are, obviously, a pro United Kingdom party; they are pro Brexit, but they’re also very socially conservative. So on issues like abortion, they are anti-abortion; they are anti same-sex marriage, so that may create some difficulties for Theresa May in terms of what they expect, but the details of any kind of deal we still don’t have at this point.
Well, you mentioned Brexit, because those negotiations are supposed to start in, I think, about 10 days. She says she’s going to charge ahead as planned. But really, hasn’t she just weakened her position? In terms of that negotiation?
Well, this is exactly the opposite of—Indeed. It leaves her very susceptible to rebellions. With a wafer-thin majority, even with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, it means that if any MPs don’t like one aspect or another of the deal that she’s achieving, they could scupper it, and it leaves her very, very vulnerable in that sense. Because at the end of the day, it comes down to parliamentary arithmetic, and if you don’t have the numbers to get legislation through, then you are… you can be held to ransom, effectively, even by your own backbenchers from your own party. So she could find that life is made significantly more difficult because she doesn’t have that majority. I mean, yes, it would’ve been difficult beforehand, given that the majority was quite slim. But now, for her own party to not have a majority by itself, it weakens her quite substantially. And people may recall scenes when we previously had minority governments where, on close votes, MPs were rushed in on stretchers or called in from home, hanging around at all hours, just to make sure the government could get key bits of legislation through. Things will start to emerge over the coming days. The MPs are due to reconvene on the 13th of June, and then the state opening of parliament is scheduled for the 19th of June. That’s when the Queen’s speech will happen. We’ll find out what the legislative agenda is likely to be. But in the meantime, I think there’ll be lots of horse-trading and discussions going on behind closed doors which most of us are not privy to.
Talking of behind closed doors, I’m interested, before we go, about the Labour Party, because Jeremy Corbyn was sort of written off by a lot of people, including some very senior members of his own party. What’s going to happen with him now? Because he did the impossible in the minds of many.
Well, some people have pointed out this is the first general election in which Labour has gained seats since 1997, so he has achieved what many doubted. And in large part, some analysts are putting that down to greater engagement and greater turnout by younger votes. There was a surge of people registering to vote on the deadline day at the last minute, and turnout was significantly higher in towns that had a greater proportion of 18- to 34-year-olds. So the youth vote seems to have helped Jeremy Corbyn. And the fact that Labour has increased its share of the vote has increased its number of seats by 30, and including, within the last hour or so, the constituency of Kensington and Chelsea, which has always been conservative. It was down to three or four recounts. It finally went to Labour. So to achieve that kind of result kind of gives him a much stronger hand. And I think even those who had doubts about him within his own party – and there were many – will now be certainly having to accept him staying in post as Labour leader for some time, because how could they possibly clamour for him to stand down after this result?
We’ll need to leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us, Ben Bland. Appreciate your time.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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