Britain on the edge

I am not a gambling man, certainly not given to putting money on political bets in spite of being a journalist all my working years. But don't know why I made an exception to the unwritten rule this month. Reading newspapers and watching television for about a month since my arrival in London, like so many others I was intrigued to make a guess about who might win the June 8 British general election. Most newspapers and television channels seemed to swallow Prime Minister Theresa May and her ruling Tory party line that she was headed for a comfortable majority, probably a landslide victory.

So, a couple of days before the election I put a £10 bet, not on any party's straight win but a hung Parliament.

The final ten days of the campaign before Election Day witnessed many television debates featuring party political leaders, but a head-to-head debate between Prime Minister May and her chief rival Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour party had been declined by May who offered instead to be interviewed separately, though sitting in the same studio, by the same anchors. Her reluctance for a face to face debate with Labour leader Corbyn gave a chance to the headline writer of Metro, a free news daily with about a million circulation across the country, for its splash headline: "THE LADY IS NOT FOR TURNING...UP." (The headline was a throwback to former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who is still remembered for refusing to change any of her policies by declaring on her own behalf that The Lady is Not for Turning.) Theresa May, who didn't turn up for a head to head debate and who unlike Mrs Thatcher, had in fact at least partly reversed her decisions on old age care benefits (dubbed dementia tax) and pensions.

As election day came nearer, Mrs May's image began looking slightly shakier from "strong and stable", in her words, to wobble and stumble as humorously critiqued by sketch writer John Crace of the Guardian newspaper.
Election day and night came, and by the following morning, a hung Parliament was clear as daylight. I had won my ten-pound bet with a net gain of 40 pounds. Labour party rank and file and leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had been shown thumbs down by nearly two-thirds of the sitting Labour MPs, have been cock-a-hoop ever since, ready for the next general election expected sooner than later. As expected, Prime Minister May remains under open and unspoken attacks from within her party for her election gamble which has severely backfired. She is now compelled to seek the help of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland to stay in power, with a wafer thin majority. Former Tory Chancellor (Finance Minister) George Osborne, now the Editor of Evening Standard, London's free newspaper, called her a 'Dead Woman Walking.' On her part, she has apologised to her party and MPs who lost their seats. Truly contrite, she has admitted that she got the party and the country into the mess and she would stay to get it out of the mess. But in brutal politics that is never enough. Her days are numbered.

Meanwhile, Her Majesty the Queen and her fans in the racing community and the bookies are not amused as all this mess has cast a shadow over her scheduled attendance at the opening of the Royal Ascot racing session. An event, perhaps no less important than the opening of the Parliament itself. Incidentally, till recently, the Queen's opening speech had to be ready three clear days before the delivery as it was written on vellum – calf, goat or sheep skin – which required three days to dry. An ancient tradition going back 500 years, stopped earlier this year only.

Simultaneously, the great British debate over Brexit – leaving the European Union – is unremittingly urgent. The hard Brexit idea, which Prime Minister May had dangled before the election when she described herself as "a bloody difficult woman" vis-a-vis EU, seems to be wilting fast. A much softer Brexit is on the cards after the PM's landslide from hubris to humiliation. The shape of things to come could take two years or more to clear. The new French President Emmanuel Macron, however, has made a kiss-and-make-up offer to Mrs May during her one-day visit to Paris by keeping the EU door open should Britain rethink.

Sadly amid all these political goings-on of historical importance, Britain has been hit by a series of tragic events. Three terrorist suicide bomber blows – Westminster Bridge/ Parliament House attack by a lone suicide wolf, Manchester Arena carnage killing children at a music evening, and another attack by three suicide bombers at London Bridge/Borough market– within three months before the general election. Then, hard on the heels, a 24-storey tower block going up in flames in London less than a week after the election, the dead and the missing still being counted.
Britain's cup of woe is overflowing. Prayers and sympathies all round!

(Subhash Chopra is a freelance journalist and author of 'India and Britannia – an abiding affair'. Views expressed are strictly personal.)

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