Photo: Quartz

Instability in the United Kingdom

May and Corbyn Face Off Over Brexit

In a Nutshell

Conner Jones

July 16th, 2017

The UK political climate was thrown into chaos over a month ago on June 8, 2017. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, called for a snap election. An election would not have been held until May 7, 2020, but Theresa thought that her party,  the Conservatives, which were favored in opinion polls, could secure more spots in the 650 seat House of Commons. She already had a majority of seven seats, but sought to “strengthen [her] hand in those negotiations.” The negotiations she spoke of are the then-upcoming, now currently ongoing, Brexit talks between the United Kingdom and the European Union. She believes that a so called and ill-defined “hard Brexit,” or at least harder, is the correct path. This would pull the UK out of the current single-market in the EU and scrap the principle of “free movement” from one EU state to another, allowing the UK to take back control of immigration. The Conservatives’ rival group, the Labour party, and its head, Jeremy Corbyn, believe in a “softer” Brexit in which the UK would stay in the single-market altogether, or negotiate a new customs union, allowing greater product control within the UK, while still remaining subject to tariffs and trade deals made by the EU.


During the campaign in which May ran, Brexit was talked about very little and was of little importance in the outcome. Security, on the other hand, was a major issue, as two major terrorist attacks took place during the campaign. May proposed increased regulation on the internet, such as restricting access to extremist content, as a security measure; this was met with criticism from the Liberal Democrat’s leader, Tim Farron, linking such censorship to North Korea and China.


The Conservatives initially ran on a platform of lowering taxes and preventing a “coalition of chaos” between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party. May pledged to employ 10,000 more National Health Service (NHS) mental health workers, and to end the discrimination against those with mental health problems. The Conservative manifesto dropped the pledge to not increase income tax, but VAT, value-added tax, would remain where it was. It also would increase NHS spending, education spending, balance the budget by 2025, reform the state pension, confirm the winter fuel allowance—a state benefit to help the poor pay for heating in the winter months—was being distributed correctly, and require executive pay to be approved by a group of shareholders. Most controversially, the threshold for free health care would be increased from £23,250 to £100,000, while including property in the test if you are eligible for it, and allowing deferred payment after death. May later stated there would be a cap at which health care would no longer be paid for.


Labour ran a campaign advocating for public spending, especially education. Corbyn stated he would end all weapon sales from the UK to Saudi Arabia, citing their human rights violations and funding of terrorism. The Labour manifesto outlined plans to nationalize the water industry, provide up to 30 hours per week or free childcare for two to four year olds, increase taxes on the wealthy while lowering them on those of less wealth, and charge companies a tax on annual earnings above £330,000. Labour said that their plans would be fully funded by new tax revenue, but did not say how much it would cost.


While May expected her snap election to gain her a majority and strengthen the Conservative’s power in the House of Commons, it did not go as planned. While initially in opinion polling, she held a double digit lead, as the election progressed the gap closed. In the end, the Conservatives lost thirteen seats, losing their majority, while the Labour party gained thirty. In order to regain her majority after the election, May negotiated a “confidence and supply agreement” with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing party, who held ten seats. This deal has many parts, but its most significant part is an extra £1 Billion in funding to Northern Ireland for infrastructure, healthcare, mental health services, ultra-fast broadband, and education. The moral obligation for the government to compensate and safeguard its armed forces, referred to as the “covenant,” will be implemented, presumably through policy, “throughout the United Kingdom,” in reference to its alleged lack of practice in Northern Ireland. Proposed laws will be vetted by a committee of senior DUP and Conservative members, farming will continue to be supported and there will be no change in the value of pensions, as the rural areas in Northern Ireland are particularly hampered economically.


Since then, there has been doubt within the Conservative party of the sustainability of May as Prime Minister and of the financial consequences of a hard Brexit with a widening trade deficit and decreased industrial and construction activity. The UK has been through a turbulent past few months and with Brexit just on the horizon, it needs to figure out how it would like its eggs: hard or soft.