In the UK election it’s who you vote against that counts

Theresa May has given voters the chance to stop the country rushing into a hard Brexit

British prime minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have differed on how to proceed with Brexit negotiations during separate television interviews with Jeremy Paxman. Video: Reuters

 

If the US and French presidential elections have one lesson for British voters, it’s that it’s who you vote against that counts. Hillary Clinton drew almost as much scorn from the left as the right, but there are few now who would say she and Donald Trump are “as bad as each other”. How many progressive voters who stayed at home or voted for third-party candidates would do so again if given the chance? In France, by contrast, left-wing voters uneasy about Emmanuel Macron’s Blairite platform held their noses and voted for him to ensure defeat for Marine Le Pen.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has been widely vilified, but the question for voters is not whether they endorse him but whether they want the Conservatives to keep governing in their party’s ruinous self-interest. The UK’s EU membership was put on the line in a high-stakes referendum so they could suppress Ukip and their own Eurosceptic wing. When they lost, Theresa May opted for a hard Brexit to immunise the party from criticism from the right-wing press and Ukip. Her decision to call a snap election had nothing to do with “strong and stable leadership” and everything to do with pummelling a Labour Party that was on the ropes before the contest even began.

But in trying to capitalise on Corbyn’s weakness, May has presented the electorate with an unexpected gift. The next general election had not been due until 2020, a year after the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, but voters now have the chance to slam on the brakes. It’s true Labour has committed to following through with Brexit, but they are open to a “softer” version. Were they to end up in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they would almost certainly hold a second referendum on the final deal. That is why everyone against a hard Brexit should vote tactically for the candidate who is best-placed to beat the Tory in their constituency.

Nobody specifically voted for the hard Brexit that May is intent on; that option wasn’t on the ballot paper. Many high-profile Leave campaigners advocated the “Norwegian model”, where the UK would retain access to the single market. This option must have persuaded many voters, yet it was discarded with no debate. May’s assertion that hard Brexit is the will of “the people” is disingenuous; she can scarcely claim to be acting for even half the people.

Had Remain won the Brexit referendum by a 4 per cent margin, the next day Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and co would have been all over the airwaves claiming the huge Leave vote showed the depth of resentment over the EU and that it could not be ignored. In short, they wouldn’t have accepted the result as the final say, and there is no reason the 48 per cent who voted Remain should either.

The stumbling block for many voters is Corbyn. A common criticism is people “just don’t see him as prime minister”. But the only reason they are seeing May as prime minister is David Cameron resigned after the referendum and her leadership rivals took turns to shoot themselves in the foot. If May faced the same level of media scrutiny as Corbyn, more people would be questioning whether she constitutes “prime ministerial material”. Witness her refusal to appear in a TV debate, her failure to join other EU leaders in condemning Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, her grandstanding on terrorism despite presiding over policing cuts while home secretary. So “strong and stable” is she that it took her a matter of days to back down on the “dementia tax”, a manifesto commitment to make the elderly pay more for home care.

The Tories have claimed Labour’s spending plans depend on a “magic money tree” but their vision for the post-single market economy could best be described as delusional. Here’s Boris Johnson in April: “I was amazed, when walking the backstreets of Uxbridge, to find a little company that makes the wooden display counters that are used to sell the duty-free Toblerones in every Saudi Arabian airport. If we can crack markets like that, think what we can do when we have free trade deals with America, where they still have a ban on British haggis.”

A far more lucrative UK export to Saudi Arabia is, of course, weapons, but there was no mention of that, nor of an unpublished Home Office inquiry into this valuable client’s role in funding international terrorism.

Irish citizens in Britain have more reason than most to vote against the Tories. It is clear May has given next to no thought to the future of the Border, the Common Travel Area or the precarious state of the Stormont executive. Her party has shown much more interest in highlighting Corbyn’s meetings with members of Sinn Féin, forgetting to mention they took place at a time when the Conservative government was holding secret talks with the IRA.

The Brexit referendum was presented as an opportunity to stand up to an out-of-touch, entitled elite. This week voters have a genuine chance to do just that. They won’t get another any time soon.

Jon Smith is an Irish Times journalist and British citizen

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