Welcome, welcome, welcome… I’m absolutely not John Oliver, but this will be the best impression I can muster via text alone. We start with the United Kingdom…
…a country you think about so little you didn’t realise that wasn’t the United Kingdom, that was Westeros from Game of Thrones crudely photoshopped into western Europe. This is the United Kingdom.
The UK has recently finished the count in a snap general election to decide on a new Prime Minister and new ruling government. There were some ups and downs in typically British laugh-first-ask-questions-later fashion. At one point we were treated to, and yes this is genuine, a man known only as Lord Buckethead standing against the Prime Minister in her own constituency as a “strong, but not entirely stable” protest vote.
I look at that photo and can hear the dum-dum-dum of the Imperial March from Star Wars, but I don’t know who it’s playing for.
Unfortunately for incumbent PM Theresa May, while she did manage to defeat Lord Buckethead, the rest of the evening had not gone well. This has not gone well at all, and the vote has returned a hung parliament. This means that no one party controls an outright majority and can’t form a government on its own. This means that after seven weeks of scaring the public that her opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn would form a “coalition of chaos”, May has had to reach across the Irish Sea to the Democratic Union Party, the DUP, to form a coalition of her own.
Now, at this point most people in England, Scotland and Wales simply went… “who?” and were forced to learn as much about the DUP in the space of three hours that they possibly could.
The DUP are, amongst other things, associated with young earth creationists, climate change denialists, and are both anti-LGBT and strictly anti-abortion even in cases of rape and incest. So reaching out to the few elected DUP members of parliament clearly an act of some desperation for Theresa May, whose Party under David Cameron tried to bill itself as a somewhat pro-environment, pro-LGBT and progressive affair.
To understand how the UK got to this point, and to play a bit of catch up, we need to go back about ten years to the resignation of Tony Blair. You may remember him from such things as super-awkward attempts to make politics cool…
…his newborn son’s role in the MMR-vaccine controversy of the early 2000s, and, of course, sexing up a dossier on Iraq’s ability to launch weapons of mass destruction as a pretext to taking the United Kingdom and the United States into a war because, in terms best described with Pulp Fiction metaphors, Tony Blair was the Gimp to George W. Bush’s Zed.
After Blair’s resignation under a wave of controversy, the position was inherited by his long-term friend and political ally Gordon Brown, a man for whom the words ‘dour’ and ‘lacklustre’ were specifically invented for, and whose attempts at smiling still haunts the dreams of those who were children in the 00s and are now permanently traumatised adults:
“PLEASE DEAR GOD NO! I’LL VOTE FOR YOU I’LL VOTE FOR YOU! JUST NEVER DO THAT AGAIN PLEASE!”
Now, there is nothing wrong with UK leaders simply inheriting this position. Constitutionally the Prime Minister of the UK is whoever leads the party with the largest majority in Parliament. But it does leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth when one hasn’t actually stood for an election. So when 2010 rolled around and Gordon Brown stood for election, it was a big deal. A lot rested on the ability for Brown to win that election… which he utterly failed to do.
There was a disastrous combination of Tony Blair’s poisoned legacy, a perceived mishandling of the credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008, and Brown himself being recorded calling Gillian Duffy, a Scottish woman he spoke with about immigration while on the campaign trail, a “bigoted woman” on a hot microphone. All this left him pretty much unelectable. It was as if, after years of training a dog to do basic math by tapping out the numbers, when it finally came to the talent show final he just sat there, defecated on the stage and barked “bigot!” at the audience.
“NO, FIDO! WE’VE BEEN OVER THIS BEFORE! JUST TAP YOUR PAW THREE TIMES! BAD DOG!”
Now, to be fair to Brown, the defeat here wasn’t a complete humiliation. 2010 saw the UK enter a hung parliament situation, the kind it’s in today, and the Labour Party’s main rivals, the Conservatives, still couldn’t form a majority on its own. So, the Conservatives reached out to the UK’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, and this man Nick Clegg:
Clegg is a man who is perfectly acceptably normal on the face of it but, while you can’t put your finger on why, probably has something wrong with him. He’s like that cousin that occasionally comes to dinner that you get on with, you like, and you agree with, and is wholly charming, and erudite and intelligent, but almost certainly masturbates with both hands and can only climax while looking at cleaning products. Or a work colleague you respect enormously, would do anything for and would even be happy for if they got a promotion instead of you, because “Go you, Nick, you deserve it!”… but then goes to a bar and orders a Bud Lite Lime.
Now, the words here should be self explanatory, a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats appears to be the weirdest flavour combination since Ben and Jerry’s introduced Peanut Butter and Sweetcorn, with a core of cheap hotdog. Sure, you could technically eat it and survive, but… really… just really? You want to eat that?
And that continued into 2015 as an uneasy peace between the two ideologically mis-matched parties. The UK then held another scheduled election. This time, the Conservatives reached the threshold for a majority, and reigned as a full government. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were destroyed completely, losing most of their seats to a combination of Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Party as revenge for leaping into bed with the devil amongst other things. So the Conservatives were expected to have plain sailing from then on… and then this happened.
In fairness, it’s easy to see in hindsight that this was the equivalent of David Cameron cycling along merrily and then jabbing a metal rod into the spokes of the front wheel, before toppling into a ditch full of horse manure. But at the time it was a shrewd strategy to try and silence anti-EU members of his party, and prevent his voters entirely defecting to UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, a party whose name will remain forever a huge slap in the face for people actually fighting for real independence.
Obviously, the EU Referendum went badly for Cameron and he resigned in a shock announcement, declaring that whoever lead the country out of the EU it wouldn’t be him. This then opened up a leadership contest to become the Prime Minister. This would be something of a repeat of Tony Blair stepping down to leave Gordon Brown in charge – whoever replaced Cameron would have to do a very convincing job of it to keep that sour taste of “unelected Prime Minister” out of the mouths of the electorate.
So, who did the Conservatives have to choose from?
Well, first, there was Michael Gove, a man who was such an incompetent education secretary that teachers now literally use his name as a verb to mean ‘blustering into a situation you have no experience in and fucking everything up’. Boris Johnson, one of those inflatable flailing tube-men you see outside used car dealerships who gained sentience during a Weird Science ritual. And there was also Adrea Leadsom, a woman so unknown that even her supporters had to repeatedly check Wikipedia every day to see who she was.
But it turned out there wouldn’t even be a leadership election anyway as those other three candidates eventually dropped out. Johnson and Gove stabbed each other in the back pretty much at the first hurdle, while that… Other One dropped out after saying May was unqualified to lead the country because she didn’t have children. Theresa May won by default – hashtag-itsokaytonothavechilden, hashtag-feminism. Yes, she won the same way that a half-blind, half-deaf octagenarian with no thumbs would win at Mario Kart: The other three players acted like stoned toddlers who took one look at the Rainbow Road and just fell over giggling.
But… meanwhile, behind all of that craziness, there was this man, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected as leader of the official opposition, the Labour Party, in the aftermath of the 2015 election.
Imagine Corbyn as something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi like figure. If Obi-Wan explicitly said he would refuse to push the button on his lightsaber, and instead sat down to discuss a peace deal with Darth Vader over tea, only for the photos to emerge years later to deride him as a Sith Sympathiser. Or, perhaps more close to home, he’s like a less-angry Bernie Sanders whose stunningly sober vices include gardening in his allotment and studying manhole covers, no really.
Corbyn was somewhat of a disaster for Labour initially. Despite having strong popular support from the Party’s membership, he faced almost constant criticism from Labour MPs, who, only a year into his time as leader even launched a coup against him, starting a vote of no confidence that Corbyn lost, forcing him to stand for election again, which he won again by a similar margin. Labour were in disarray for nearly two years following the 2015 election. It was as if the stoned toddlers from before had simply given up playing Mario Kart at all, and just started hitting each other with the controllers because, well, why not, we don’t need to play Mario Kart for another five years anyway, let’s have some fun hitting each other instead. For some time, it seemed like Labour’s prospects of political success were in the sewers, which ironically might be fine with Corbyn because he likes staring at manhole covers.
Further Labour in-fighting seemed like a dead cert for the next few years. And that’s where we find yet another bit of complexity in the story in the form of the ‘Fixed Term Parliament Act’ – a title of a law so boring that not even Tony Blair could sex it up. But in short, the act limits UK Parliamentary terms to five years, calling for an election on a fixed 5-year cycle, as opposed the previous system which was near enough officially “I dunno, whenevs, bruh?” There was, however, an out from this – if two thirds of Parliament voted to repeal it, an election could be called at any time.
No one, quite literally no-one, thought it would happen, though. Theresa May said there wouldn’t be one – the first of many, many U-turns in 2017 – and most people thought Labour would be clinically insane to go along with it since, in their drunken state of perpetual in-fighting, the only end result would be complete decimation of their party at the polls. But, somehow, it happened anyway and the election was called.
Why it was called is possibly even more complicated. On the one hand, Theresa May was insistent it was to give her the mandate to tackle the Brexit negotiations exactly as she wanted. On the other hand, many of her MPs were facing police investigations into electoral expenses fraud. Now, to be fair, those investigations mostly ended without any charges being levelled against the MPs in question, and the police said their mis-spent expenses were mistakes, not intentional fraud, but the timing of the election has been considered suspect in the light of the scandal.
And this is where it gets difficult to really appreciate and follow exactly what has happened since the General Election was called and the result came in. British politics has almost, but not quite fully, inverted. Now, to be fair, Labour still haven’t won. They won’t be in government. There’s no indication that Jeremy Corbyn will ever be Prime Minister as it stands. He can attempt to form a minority government if Theresa May’s negotiations with the DUP fall through, but most likely that would take another election, and probably one pretty soon – and there seems to be very little appetite going around the UK to go through this shitfest yet again. But let’s look at a quick run-down of the things that have happened in only the last few weeks.
Firstly, Theresa May and the Conservatives basically shot themselves in the foot by targeting their own base – that is, wealthy, white old people – and threatening to force pensioners to sell their houses to cover the costs of dementia care, as well as taking away benefits including a winter fuel allowance. Both pledges became so toxic they became the first flagship manifesto promises to be broken before an election had even taken place. Then Theresa May refused to take part in any debates, televised or otherwise, and mostly hunkered down to take part in planned and controlled photoshoots with selected party faithful, rather than the general public. Then, during one televised debate, Home Secretary Amber Rudd – standing in for Theresa May – asked the audience to judge the Conservatives on their record to get the biggest outright laugh of the evening. The second biggest laugh possibly went to this man, Tim Farron, a man who is a pea-on-a-cocktail-stick crossed with the children’s TV presenter, when he used his final debate speech to compel the audience to go make a cup of tea and change the channel to watch the Bake-Off instead of listening to Amber Rudd’s closing remarks:
And then there was the entire Conservative policy and manifesto, which was widely mocked for being very light on detail, or substance of any kind, but very firm on the words “Brexit” and “strong and stable” as if those were the only three words they had available at the time, because their austerity measures stopped them from buying new ones.
At the other end of the political spectrum, a minor miracle occurred in that the stoned toddlers in Labour stopped hitting each other with video game controllers long enough to snap to attention and get their act together, resulting in a huge surge in the opinion polls that put them neck-and-neck with the Conservatives by election day on June 8th. Then when the votes were counted, Labour had won big, the Conservatives had lost a little, but the Scottish National Party lost big with their votes splitting apparently at random between the Conservatives and Labour. And that’s without getting into UKIP, which may no longer exist by the next election, even if it is really soon, as it managed to win zero seats for the 3rd election in a row. And it’s also without mentioning the small gains by the Liberal Democrats, who recovered slightly from the beating they got in 2015. And that’s also without getting into how Labour managed their turnaround in the face of a very hostile media that has been widely criticised for not giving Corbyn a fair hearing.
And while all this was going on, Britain faced two major terrorist attacks that left dozens dead in two major cities.
The whole thing has left Britain a confuddled, weary mess, much like it was in 2010. And there is now a lot of uncertainty going around, perhaps even more so this time around. The deal between the Conservatives and the DUP seems to be strained, yet very casual, so no-one can say how strong and stable it will be in the end. Theresa May was looking to shore up her majority and run the country for five years, but has instead been humbled, and there are already calls for her to resign, opening up the Party leadership to many of those who fell flat on their faces the last time. Meanwhile, the fallout this will have for the Brexit negotiations is completely unknown, and the UK’s departure from the European Union will be even more up in the air than before.
So, the question is; how much more of this can Britain take?
And now, this…