It was the best of times for the Maltese prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and the worst of times for his British counterpart, Theresa May; a time of little wisdom and much misplaced self-belief. Both called snap elections, but while the former was rewarded with 55% of the vote and an absolute majority, the UK’s prime minister suffered the humiliation of losing her slim but workable absolute majority and just scraping in as the largest party. Hoping for a convincing mandate, not least to silence the Eurosceptic wing of her Conservative Party, instead she was forced to seek a parliamentary ally to prop up her government. May appeared crushed by the experience – she was gleefully described as ‘a dead woman walking’ by George Osborne, the former chancellor she sacked, and as a ‘zombie’ by others.
Muscat had called the election as a vote of confidence after allegations of corruption were levelled against his wife, Michelle (together with his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, and former energy minister Konrad Mizzi), after the so-called Panama Papers revealed bank accounts in various tax havens set up through the Panamanian offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca. As reported in the Round Table last May, the accusations led to thousands of demonstrators massing outside Muscat’s window and calling for his resignation in what was described by the opposition Nationalist Party (PN) as the ‘biggest scandal in Malta’s political history’, according to the Maltese Independent. The Muscats, Schembri and Mizzi all deny any wrongdoing. Fresh allegations emerged in March, claiming Michelle Muscat had received $1m from the daughter of Azerbaijan’s president. A judicial inquiry was set up to investigate the claims. Muscat has since said he would resign if any allegations against his family were vindicated.
Unlike May, Muscat was returned to power with a convincing majority, equivalent to nearly 10% of the electorate. He campaigned on an enviable economic record, with Malta enjoying its lowest unemployment rate ever (the third lowest in Europe at 4.1%) and the first budget surplus in three decades last year. The voters rewarded him on 3 June with a majority of 35,000 votes, according to the Electoral Commission of Malta. It was, a triumphant Muscat said, the first time in 41 years that Labour had won two elections on the trot with a popular majority. The turnout fell to Malta’s lowest figure since 1966 – still an astonishing 92.07%, the Maltese Independent reported.
As the Financial Times reported last year, Muscat already faced criticism over Malta’s controversial Citizenship by Investment scheme. The scheme was not popular with the European parliament, with the Guardian reporting that MEPs were openly calling for Muscat’s departure. It marked an uncomfortable finish to Malta’s six months’ tenure in the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. Muscat had begun in January with several ambitions for Malta’s term around the theme of ‘rEUnion’: emphasising the need to get a grip on the EU borders to ease the migration crisis (of which Malta bears a disproportionate burden), to share responsibility for refugee resettlement and reform the Dublin regulation (which says migrants are the responsibility of the first EU country they arrive in), and for the ‘EU27’ to show unity in the face of Brexit. Muscat told the plenary session of the European Parliament: ‘We want a fair deal for the United Kingdom, but that deal necessarily needs to be inferior to membership.’
Muscat pledged that his first law if returned would be to bring in equal marriage laws. Pink News praised how ‘the traditionally conservative nation’ for becoming ‘one of the most progressive in Europe for LGBT people’ by opening civil unions to same-sex couples in 2014, becoming the first country in Europe to outlaw ‘gay cure therapy’, and introducing progressive gender recognition laws.
May’s ‘self-inflicted wound’
In stark contrast to the emphatic endorsement received by Muscat, the ‘catastrophe’ of May’s drubbing by the electorate – the ‘biggest self-inflicted wound by a prime minister since Eden invaded Suez’, according to Forbes – came just weeks before the fraught negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union were due to begin. May’s smug expectation had been that the Tories’ commanding lead in the opinion polls would reward her with a grip on the Commons to rival that of Margaret Thatcher, who had an average majority of 96 through the 1980s. Instead, May lost 13 seats, clinging to power only after a hefty sweetener of public funds to Northern Ireland induced the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a fundamentalist Christian party of Northern Ireland with strong historical links to Loyalist paramilitaries, to back her.
There had been signs that the election result was far from the foregone conclusion assumed by most commentators. The pollsters YouGov had predicted a hung parliament nine days before the election but this was derided by many commentators. The right-wing broadcaster Iain Dale called the survey ‘utter tripe’, while Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager who was now working for the Tories, said he had ‘spent the day laughing at yet another stupid poll from YouGov’. Even Paul Mason, a left-wing journalist and outspoken supporter of the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, described the poll as ‘weird’, saying: ‘Right now, Labour is nowhere near achieving this,’ the Sun reported. May was spared further ignominy by the collapse of the UK Independence Party vote, which plummeted from 12.6% in 2015 to 2% after the anti-immigrant Brexit party had its electoral clothes stolen by the Tories, and the extraordinary resurrection of the Scottish Conservatives under Ruth Davidson (the joke used to be that Scotland had more panda bears than Tory MPs).
With more than 600,000 people registering to vote on the last day before the deadline – 450,000 aged 18 to 34 – more Britons voted than at any time since 1992. May actually won as big a share of the vote, 42.4%, as Thatcher ever did, but Corbyn’s Labour had surged to its best result since Tony Blair’s 2001 pomp, with 40.1%. Blair himself spoke for many in his party by predicting in 2015 that Labour under Corbyn faced ‘annihilation’. However, despite being savaged by Fleet Street, and 172 of Corbyn’s own MPs signing a motion of no confidence in him last year, the 68-year-old socialist left his critics ‘gobsmacked’ after repelling the Tories’ advances in traditional Labour strongholds in the Midlands and north of England, and unexpectedly winning seven seats in Scotland. Labour won back many votes on its anti-austerity platform while also securing big swings in London, Scotland and the south in what was seen as a backlash by Remain voters against Brexit.
It became an instant truism that Corbyn’s success was down to the youth vote (the celebrity Lily Allen tweeted ‘respect your youngers’), motivated by Corbyn’s outsider status and policies such as scrapping university tuition fees. However, the Huffington Post noted that the crucial demographic was more likely to have been voters aged 35-44 defecting from the Tories. YouGov said the Tories ‘gobbled up’ voters who went for small parties in 2015, such as Ukip and the Liberal Democrats, while Labour also won over Lib Dem supporters, plus those of the Greens and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru.
Needing a ‘supply and confidence’ deal with the DUP to sustain her government, May found £1.5bn down the back of the sofa to increase funding to Northern Ireland, although the region already received nearly 25% more per capita than England. Welsh and Scottish politicians were especially angry. The Labour first minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, said the deal was a ‘straight bung to keep a weak prime minister and a faltering government in office’, while his Scottish counterpart, Nicola Sturgeon, called it a ‘grubby, shameless deal’. The haunted-looking prime minister was left with few allies even within her own party, not helped when May’s statement in Downing Street the day after the election barely acknowledged the scale of the disaster. There was a furious reaction and May was forced to apologise to her party. Amid talk of a leadership challenge, she also caved in to pressure to sack her closest advisers at No 10, the much-loathed Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. ‘Where once there was power, wielded through control and fear,’ the FT wrote, now ‘there was impotence.’ Even weeks after the election, ‘the bunker seems almost empty and deeply disheartened,’ one insider told the paper.
The true scale of how diminished the British prime minister has become could be seen as she left an EU summit in Brussels, allowed to say a few words before being shown the door while the EU27 continued without her. Muscat, however, seemed to grow in stature this year, admonishing the more homophobic Commonwealth states for their intolerant laws at the Commonwealth Day address in Westminster Abbey and laughing off criticism in the European Parliament. The FT said Muscat was one of a ‘youthful crop of leaders’ including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Ireland’s openly gay Leo Varadkar and France’s Emmanuel Macron, who were succeeding ‘Europe’s failed generation’. May, it said, was along with Trump, an ‘exemplar of an ageing, embittered English-speaking world in retreat.’ The British election result will only cement that image in the public eye.
Oren Gruenbaum is the Editor of Commonwealth Update.