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EM Ireland: Just the Facts – UK General Election

A parliamentary election took place in the United Kingdom (UK) on Thursday, 8 June 2017. The Conservative Party had held a majority since the previous election in May 2015. Conservative Party leader, Theresa May, served as Prime Minister since July 2016 following the resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron after the UK’s vote to leave the EU in a referendum held on 23 June 2016. Yesterday’s vote saw the UK electorate return a hung parliament. Following the result, Theresa May announced her intention to form a minority government.

Background

The lower house of the UK Houses of Parliament, the House of Commons, is comprised of 650 seats representing the 650 regional constituencies of the UK which are comprised of approximately 72,000 eligible voters on average. 533 of these constituencies are in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales, and 18 are in Northern Ireland. Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK are elected under the first-past-the-post system, whereby the candidate with the largest number of votes in each constituency wins the single seat. The threshold political parties need to reach to gain a parliamentary majority is 326 seats.

The next general election was scheduled to take place in 2020. Despite previously stating that she would not do so, Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to call a snap general election on 18 April 2017. She did so saying that she believed other political parties were “jeopardis[ing] the work we must do to prepare for Brexit at home and it weakens the government’s negotiating position in Europe”.

Among many issues, the election campaign focused on the leadership of the UK’s historical two main parties of government, Conservative Prime Minister May and Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as their approach to the upcoming Article 50 negotiations. Prime Minister May declared that she would offer “strong and stable leadership to guide Britain through the years ahead”, also saying on Brexit that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Mr Corbyn criticised Prime Minister May for not participating in a live election debate, saying it was a sign of “weakness, not strength”. He also disagreed with her stance on the Article 50 negotiations commentating that “’no deal’ is in fact a bad deal. It is the worst of all deals because it would leave us with World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs and restrictions, instead of the access to European markets we need.”

Rather than a single issue dominating the recent debate, a number of them characterised the election at different periods of the campaign: from manifesto pledges such as Conservative Party proposals to change social care funding and Labour Party plans on nationalisation, to the ensuing debates about security in the wake of two terror attacks in the UK during the election campaign.

There were also geographic angles to the debate.

In Scotland, much of the debate focused on a possible second referendum on Scottish independence following the UK’s vote to leave the EU. In Northern Ireland, much of the debate focused on the potential effects of Brexit. Opinion polls initially predicted an historic first victory in 167 years for the Conservative Party in Wales but later predicted that the Labour Party would make gains at the expense of the Conservative Party.

The disparity in polling and extent of the ‘Labour surge’ was a major focus throughout the election, with some polling companies placing the Conservative Party on a one-point lead on the eve of the election and others putting the Party 13 points ahead.

Result

With the results of 649 of the 650 constituencies announced, there were 46,843,896 votes cast meaning turnout at yesterday’s elections was 68.7 per cent. The UK electorate returned a hung parliament, with no single political party reaching the 326 seat threshold required to gain an outright majority.

The Conservative Party emerged once again as the largest party. At the time of publishing, with the last seat yet to be declared, the Party will return 318 or 319 MPs. While the Conservative Party increased its nationwide vote share to 42.4 per cent, up by 5.5 per cent since the 2015 general election, the Party will lose at least 11 seats as well as its overall majority in the House of Commons.

The Labour Party will return either 261 or 262 seats, gaining 29 or 30 seats from 2015. In a sign of a return to two-party politics in the UK, the Labour Party also saw its vote share rise, increasing by 9.5 per cent to 40 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote declined slightly by 0.5 per cent to 7.4 per cent nationwide, but the results also saw the Party return 12 MPs, gaining four seats. The Green Party saw a decrease in its vote share by 2.1 per cent to 1.6 per cent, although it did retain its sole seat.

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) saw its vote share drop to 1.8 per cent across the UK, a decline of 10.8 per cent in comparison to the 2015 general election, resulting in the Party losing its sole MP in Westminster.

The Labour Party did especially well in Wales, gaining 3 seats from the Conservative Party. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist Party, gained one seat, returning four MPs.

In Scotland, pro-unionist parties made gains from the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP remains the largest party, returning 35 MPs. However, the Party lost 21 seats; 12 of these going to the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, 6 to the Scottish Labour Party, and 3 to the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

In Northern Ireland, both the largest unionist party and the largest Irish nationalist party gained seats. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is once more the largest Northern Irish party, returning 10 MPs and gaining two seats. The other main unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) lost its two MPs. Sinn Féin, which has a policy of abstention from Westminster, won seven constituencies, gaining three seats. The Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) lost its three seats.

Implications

Following the return of a hung parliament, on Friday 9 June, the incumbent Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced she intended to form a minority Conservative Party government, which would “continue to work with our friends and allies in the DUP in particular”.

Speaking outside the UK Prime Minister’s residence, 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister May said her government would “provide certainty” and work to keep the country “safe and secure”, committing to guiding “the country through the crucial Brexit talks that begin in just 10 days”.

Speaking after he was returned as an MP to Westminster, Mr Corbyn said “politics has changed” and added that Prime Minister May “wanted a mandate. Well, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence. I would have thought that is enough for her to go.”

Reacting to the result, Leo Varadkar TD, the newly-elected leader of Fine Gael, stated: “The results of the UK election indicate to me that there is no strong mandate to proceed with a hard Brexit, which represents an opportunity for Ireland.” Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator for the Article 50 negotiations, tweeted: “Brexit negotiations should start when UK is ready; timetable and EU positions are clear. Let’s put our minds together on striking a deal.”

Prime Minister May now needs to secure the confidence of the majority of the House of Commons to form a government and then pass a legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, scheduled for Monday 19 June. Monday 19 June is also the start of the week in which negotiations between the EU and the UK under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union are scheduled to begin.

Brexit – In their own words

In advance of negotiations to form a minority government, EM Ireland has highlighted the key manifesto pledges on Brexit by all elected UK political parties (listed below in order of number of MPs).

Conservative Party (317 Seats) – ‘Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future’

  • “Following the historic referendum on 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. Only the Conservative Party, under Theresa May’s strong and stable leadership, can negotiate the best possible deal for our country.”
  • “As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement. There may be specific European programmes in which we might want to participate and if so, it will be reasonable that we make a contribution.”
  • “We will maintain the Common Travel Area and maintain as frictionless a border as possible for people, goods and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

Labour Party (261 Seats) – ‘For the Many, Not the Few’

  • “Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first. We will prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give a meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations.”
  • “We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain. Labour will always put jobs and the economy first.”
  • “Labour will ensure there is no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

Scottish National Party (35 Seats) – ‘Stronger for Scotland’

  • “We must make sure that our interests are not ignored in the Brexit negotiations – a vote for the SNP will make sure that Scotland’s voice is heard. A majority of people in Scotland voted to remain in the EU – but even many of those who voted to leave have real concerns about the extreme Brexit being pursued by the Prime Minister.”
  • “We will fight for Single Market membership. And we will demand new powers, so we can continue to encourage the best and brightest from around the world to make Scotland their home, and contribute to our economy and society.”
  • “At the end of the Brexit process, when the final terms of the deal are known, it is right that Scotland should have a choice about our future.”

Liberal Democrats (12 Seats) – ‘Change Britain’s Future’

  • “We passionately believe that Britain’s relationship with its neighbours is stronger as part of the European Union. Britain is better off in the EU. At the end of negotiations there will be a decision on the deal. Liberal Democrats believe the British people should have the final say.”
  • “Liberal Democrats will fight to prevent a hard Brexit. We believe that any deal negotiated for the UK outside the EU must ensure that trade can continue without customs controls at the border, and must maintain membership of the single market, which smooths trade between the UK and the continent by providing a common ‘rule book’ for businesses and a common mechanism to ensure that everyone abides by the rules.”
  • “We are determined to: Maintain the common travel area and freedom of movement; Ensure that the international human rights protections hard wired into the Good Friday Agreement are not compromised; Protect the rights of Northern Ireland citizens living and working in the EU, and EU citizens living and working in Northern Ireland; Protect the current financial settlement and the funding of programmes supporting peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.”

Democratic Unionist Party (10 Seats) – ‘Standing Strong for Northern Ireland’

  • “The DUP’s decision to support leaving the European Union was based on principle and practicality. For our part we will work to get the best deal for Northern Ireland, recognizing that we share a land frontier with the Republic and the particular circumstances of our unique history and geography.”
  • “During the negotiations the DUP wants to see a focus on: Progress on new free trade deals with the rest of the world; Comprehensive free trade and customs agreement with the European Union; Customs arrangements which facilitate trade with new and existing markets.”
  • “During the negotiations the DUP wants to see a focus on: Ease of trade with the Irish Republic and throughout the European Union; Maintenance of the Common Travel Area; Strengthened relationships across the four components parts of the United Kingdom with no internal borders; Particular circumstances of Northern Ireland with a land border with the EU fully reflected; Frictionless border with Irish Republic assisting those working or travelling in the other jurisdiction.”

Sinn Féin (7 Seats) – ‘Standing Up for Equality, Rights, Irish Unity’

  • “Brexit will have a detrimental impact on the Good Friday Agreement and the principles of the peace process as well as devastating consequences for the economy across Ireland. The alternative to Brexit is designated special status for the North within the European Union. This can be done within the current constitutional arrangement. The only other way to prevent Brexit is through a United Ireland.”
  • “Designated Special Status would preserve access to the Single Market and Customs Union; ensure that we retain the Common Travel Area and maintain access to all EU funding streams.”
  • “Sinn Féin priorities include: Continued political representation for the north of Ireland within the EU Parliament and minister from the Six County Executive should continue to attend EU Council of Ministers’ meetings, when necessary; Given that the Good Friday Agreement is a bilateral treaty no agreement between the EU and the British government may apply to the north of Ireland without agreement of both governments; Special provisions to allow the North to seamlessly resume full status within the EU in the aftermath of a successful Irish Unity referendum.”

Plaid Cymru (4 Seats) – ‘Defending Wales’

  • “Plaid Cymru wants a Wales where our interests are defended at all times and Welsh interests are put at the heart of Brexit negotiations.”
  • “Plaid Cymru will ensure that Wales can continue to buy and sell to Europe without any costly barriers.”
  • “We will secure the money promised to Wales by the Leave campaign. We will not accept a penny less.”

Green Party (1 Seat) – ‘For a Confident and Caring Britain’

  • “The Green Party supported the Remain campaign and continue to believe that membership of the EU makes our future more hopeful and secure. We do not accept that either a “hard” Brexit or an exit from the EU without a deal is in the interests of the British people.”
  • “Protect freedom of movement, press for remaining within the single market, and safeguard vital rights for people and the environment.”
  • “We will campaign for your right to vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal, including an option to stay in the EU.”

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