Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Frida Ghitis: The surprising outcome of the UK election may have had more to do with Trump's approval rating than Theresa May's
As Britain enters a period of uncertainty with Brexit, the Prime Minister's relationship with Trump is a cause for concern for many voters, Ghitis writes
Five days before Election Day in the UK, a group of terrorists, linked to ISIS, launched an attack in the heart of London, killing eight people and wounding dozens. Within hours, President Donald Trump launched an insensitive Twitter tirade against the mayor of London, a member of the Labour Party.
It was another harsh blow to Prime Minister Theresa May of the Conservative Party, who was the first foreign leader to visit Trump in the White House, and a boon to her Labour rivals.
When the voters went to the polls on Thursday, they dealt May a harsh blow. She had gambled that they would give her a vote of confidence, instead she barely hung on. It wasn’t all about her relationship with Trump, but it marked yet another election setback for Trump-linked candidates in Europe.
May’s poor performance was primarily the result of her dismal campaigning. She was wooden and uncharismatic, changing positions regularly. She had repeatedly vowed not to call early elections and she broke that promise.
Two months ago, she called an election on the strength of her high approval ratings and her rival’s disastrous ones. Voters responded by dealing a defeat to their country. Sure, the biggest loser was May herself, even if her Conservatives finished in first place.
After all, she wanted elections in order to expand the party’s parliamentary majority. Her poor performance accomplished the opposite. She emerges wounded as a politician and may not be able to survive as leader of her party and, therefore, as prime minister.
Many in Britain understood the strategic necessity of bolstering the Washington-London alliance. But as disapproval for Trump spiked in the UK, the link started hurting her. When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate deal, May came under fire for refusing to sign a letter from European leaders decrying Trump’s decision.
European candidates linked to Trump have suffered a string of electoral disappointments. Ultranationalists fared poorly in France and in the Netherlands, and have been losing ground in Germany, where general elections are coming in September. In the UK, the ultranationalist UKIP, whose former leader Nigel Farage has a high-profile relationship with Trump, completely collapsed in Thursday’s election, under Farage’s successor Paul Nuttall.
But the impact on the UK matters more than the fortunes of an individual politician.
British voters sent a muddled message that leaves their country weaker in a time of serious challenges. Voters denied a majority to any party and bruised the top vote-getter. The nation is deeply divided, its leaders weakened, and the government hobbled. Governing will be difficult; obtaining strong backing for tough choices will prove impossibly hard. The next government could fall at any moment. During normal times, the consequences could be minor. But these are not normal times.
The clock is ticking on negotiations to exit the European Union (Brexit). A wave of terrorist attacks has left dozens dead in the past few weeks, revealing urgent and costly gaps in security and sparking calls for changes in refugee policy. The economy is bracing for new realities after Brexit. And the country’s standing on the global stage is in flux as it moves away from Europe at a time when one alternative, closer ties with Washington and the Trump administration, brings complications of its own.
Before the vote, May’s center-right Conservatives held a thin majority of 330 seats in the 650-seat Parliament. She wanted a stronger hand and a personal mandate. She had won the top job in an internal party contest after former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned. Cameron had urged voters to reject Brexit. When voters went against his advice, he stepped down. Now May, who vows to hold on, is likely to face internal challenges of her own.
At this writing, May’s Tories (Conservatives) have lost 12 seats and kept only 318. That’s far more than second-place Labour’s 261, but its gain of 31 seats compared to the Conservatives loss of 12 seats is a significant win. An alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) gives May a working majority. But the future looks uncertain. A challenge could come from prominent Tories such as Foreign Minister Boris Johnson or David Davies.
Then there’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has called for May to step down. Labour hasn’t won an election in more than a decade, but its strong showing has fortified Corbyn, a deeply unpopular figure until now. That is more bad news for Britain.
Back in March, Corbyn’s approval rating was just 17%. The old-style socialist became party leader almost by accident. In 2015, Labour leaders threw his name in the leadership contest as a symbol of ideological openness. No one expected him to win. But only die-hard activists vote in those contests, and Corbyn surprised many.
Labour’s own MPs have tried to oust him. The now-strengthened Corbyn has a disturbing track record of being lenient on terrorism and extremists of many hues. He has stood repeatedly with IRA terrorists, described Hamas and Hezbollah as friends, and spoken highly of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Although Corbyn has tried to clean up the mess, he’s had mixed results. He acknowledged that calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends” was a poor choice of words, and has tried to tamp the bigoted statements from other prominent party members.
It’s possible that on Thursday, the Labour Party may have performed well despite, rather than because of, Corbyn – although he campaigned well. Compared to May’s seeming opportunism, he looked authentic. With this election, moderates lost ground and the once-centrist party of Tony Blair moved very far left. Britain’s political center stands abandoned. That will also make national unity and governing more difficult.
Within 10 days, the UK and EU will start negotiating the terms of Brexit. Talks will be tough and the outcome will have a palpable impact on individual lives and on the country’s prosperity. The British will be represented by a weak government. That won’t help.
British voters are tired of elections. They have gone to the polls three times in three years. And there is a good chance that they will have a different prime minister and yet more elections in the not-too-distant future. We can only hope the next time, when they aim for a better future, they succeed.