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General Election 2017 v1 - unravelling the strands of perhaps the most interesting election of the modern era

Graham Watts OBE

Chief Executive

Construction Industry Council 

Well, apart from the weary tellers in the Kensington & Chelsea constituency who retired to their “camp beds” after three inconclusive counts, the snap General Election of 2017 is done and dusted; and, still, there remain so many unanswered questions.

Unsurprisingly, just two years after the previous election, comparatively few seats changed hands and the overall result was not hugely different from where the main parties started.   Nonetheless, it is perhaps the most interesting General Election of the modern era.   The biggest winner of the evening was probably the pollsters, with the combined exit poll being almost spot-on.  

The other “winners”, such that they are, are – in no particular order – Jeremy Corbyn, the young, the SNP, the LibDems, Vince Cable, DUP, Nigel Farage, Ruth Davidson and the Conservative Party.

The “losers”, such that they are, are – in no particular order – the Labour Party, Nicola Sturgeon, Nick Clegg, several Ministers, UKIP and Theresa May.

These two paragraphs summarise why this General Election was - and is - inconclusive; and the real “loser” is the country as a whole.   Uncertainty was the electoral threat to the country; and uncertainty is the outcome; despite the Prime Minister’s strong resolve to carry on regardless.  

Theresa May has made it clear that she will form a minority government; and it seems clear that her government can just survive with the support of the DUP. Collectively, they have an effective 5-seat majority over ALL other parties (and with the Independent Unionist that grows to 7).

Despite all the media hype, the Conservatives won the election.  However, it is interesting to note that the four nations of the United Kingdom, each now have a different leading political party.  Labour dominates in Wales (with almost half the popular vote); the SNP still lead comfortably in Scotland (albeit with far fewer seats); and although they lost seats, the Conservatives are still, by far, the largest party in England (although not in the major cities); the DUP rule the roost in Northern Ireland (although Sinn Fein also increased their absentee seats).  

However, despite winning the Election, the Conservative  Government will be anything BUT "strong and stable" since the PM will have to acknowledge every section of her party in order to avoid rebellion; and she will have to do this in the midst of complex BREXIT negotiations on which her MPs are at both extreme ends of the Remain/Leave spectrum.

It only needs 7 MPs to rebel and she can't carry a vote (if all the other parties unite against her government) .   Losing more than one Commons vote will probably mean going back to the country.   The John Major Government of 1992-97 had a working majority but suffered hugely (also because of Europe) due to backbench rebellion and threats of rebellion.   It may be 25 years’ further on but these basic parameters have not changed.

Labour's “gung-ho” attitude in favour of their own ability to form a minority government is clearly misplaced  - one doesn’t need a GCSE in maths to know that there are simply not enough Labour/Nationalist/LibDem MPs to make such a minority government even vaguely viable.

The most notable thing about the commentary on the Election overnight and this morning is that several very senior Tories have been completely absent from the discussion. Where is Boris? Where is Phillip Hammond? Where is David Davis? There has to be a reason for their silence.   This is all going to unravel in the next few days.

The minority Conservative Government is likely to hang on for a while.  I doubt that anyone has the stomach for another Election, if it can be avoided; it is more likely, that a crop of senior Tories will force a change of leadership, if they deem it necessary.   This is a party that can be ruthless; as Mrs Thatcher experienced, to her cost.

More likely, is that the PM will find a reason to call a second GE - and I suspect that this may happen in the autumn - driven by some key principles on Brexit.   It seems to be in her nature to want to make amends for the poor performance in this campaign.  She will see it, as her second chance to be more than a footnote in political history.

It is a huge irony that the minority Conservative government is only viable because of the gains made by Scottish Conservatives; and Ruth Davidson sits alongside Jeremy Corbyn and Vince Cable as the big personal winners of the evening; and she wasn’t standing in the Election! 

Other important side issues to this election are that a second Scottish Independence referendum is impossible in this Parliament; and the UK has returned to its traditional, historic position of two-party politics, with a vengeance.    How many years has it been since both major parties secured 40% + of the popular vote?  

A major plus is the rise in women MPs, to 206/207 (depending upon what happens in Kensington & Chelsea) – the first time there has been more than 200 women in Parliament. There is also clearly an increase in BAME MPs.

Another major bonus was Corbyn’s appeal to the young.  This morning, I heard a group of young people saying that “we” made the difference in preventing a Tory landslide.  They didn’t mean “we”, as in the Labour Party; but “we”, as in youth.   Jeremy Corbyn has awoken an interest in politics amongst young people and that has to be a good thing. 

A great pity is that we have lost some good ministers (most notably Gavin Barwell, one of the most competent Housing Ministers for the past few parliaments) and some strong and charismatic politicians (notably Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond).   One particularly big beast has returned in the comeback of Vince Cable.

At a parochial level, we lost the hard-working chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment, when Oliver Colvile lost his seat in Plymouth Devonport.   The better news is that the other leading cross-party MPs, with an interest in the built environment, were all returned (including Peter Aldous MP, Jo Churchill MP, Helen Hayes MP, Ian Lucas MP, the Rt Hon Maria Miller MP, John Spellar MP); and together with the Earl of Lytton and Lords Richard Best and Andrew Stunell, there is a strong caucus of the APPGEBE members, to enable it to continue.

The worry is that the Group was on the cusp of publishing an excellent report on the impact of BREXIT on skills needs in the built environment professions and the construction industry at the time that the Election was called.   A lot needs to be done, now, to re-establish the APPGEBE and gain approval to the report, before Parliament goes into the Summer recess. 

The Article 50 clock is ticking.  The EU says that it can begin negotiations, tomorrow.  Theresa May called the Election to strengthen her hand in the negotiation process and the outcome is the opposite to her intention.   None of this can be good.  

What also seems clear is that Nigel Farage will return as UKIP leader.   That party faces a future of oblivion or Farage: there is no third way. 

By Christmas, I suspect that, excepting the nationalist parties, we could very well have different leaders of the Conservative, LibDem and UKIP parties; in fact, against all the odds, Jeremy Corbyn could be the only one of the UK-wide party leaders left standing, by the end of the year.

However, we also need to recognise that despite Jeremy Corbyn's personal success in the Election, Labour only achieved the same number of seats as won by Gordon Brown, in 2010; and Neil Kinnock, in 1992. Both those leaders did not survive those losses.  

By far the biggest single point about this election is that it was called to create a strong and stable government and the outcome is likely to be exactly the opposite of that.

Personally, I hope we never see a Presidential-style Election, like this, ever again.   It failed.  

Contributor: Graham Watts OBE is the Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council. 

The views in this article are those of the author and do not – in any way – represent the views of the Construction Industry Council; or any of its members  

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