Just under a year ago, a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union ended the career of a Conservative prime minister, David Cameron. Now a general election called to strengthen the position of his successor, Theresa May, has brought her to the brink. Mrs. May is clinging on, but a country already reeling from three terrorist attacks in as many months has the most fragile government in living memory.
Some supporters of the opposition Labour Party are cheering, buoyed by the fact that their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, ran a more effective campaign than had been predicted. But no one should crow over last week’s extraordinary results, which have precipitated a deep political crisis.
The nation is divided, but not on traditional party lines. People who had previously voted for the U.K. Independence Party, the right-wing nationalist party that campaigned on the Leave side in the Brexit vote, went all over the place, producing freak results in this general election. During the referendum, Mrs. May and Mr. Corbyn were on the Remain side, nominally at least, but they have both said that its result must be respected. That hasn’t satisfied passionate feelings in either camp, and the electorate responded with the message that it didn’t want either of the two main parties in government.
Mrs. May believed her popularity ratings, but it turned out they were based on years of not saying very much. Voters barely knew her, and when they had a closer look during the Tories’ abysmal election campaign, they didn’t like what they saw. She will be able to govern only with the support of one of the most extreme parties in British politics, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. The D.U.P. has softened its stance since the late 1970s and early ’80s, when its founder, a hellfire preacher named the Rev. Ian Paisley, campaigned against gay rights under the memorable slogan “Save Ulster From Sodomy.” But only a bit: The party opposes gay marriage, and also abortion, which remains illegal in Northern Ireland even in cases of rape or incest.
The Democratic Unionists have only 10 members of Parliament, and few Britons outside of the province had even heard of the party’s leader, Arlene Foster, who holds a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly but has never been elected to Parliament in Westminster. Though recently re-elected to the Assembly, she had faced calls to resign as Northern Ireland’s first minister earlier this year after a scandal over a green energy scheme. Yet Ms. Foster will now wield disproportionate influence over Mrs. May’s government.
The D.U.P. is keen for Britain to leave the European Union, but the party also wants to maintain a “seamless and frictionless” border with Ireland. Good luck with that, Mrs. May.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party’s widely touted electoral success is not what it’s cracked up to be. If voters weren’t keen on Mrs. May, they didn’t see Mr. Corbyn as a viable alternative, either. Despite the hype, Labour is nowhere near being able to form a government, falling far short of a parliamentary majority. Indeed, the party’s tally — 56 seats behind Mrs. May’s chastened Conservatives — was a result that would, in normal circumstances, have led to angry calls for the resignation of Labour’s leader.
Expectations of Mr. Corbyn were so low that, for the moment, he is safe. But some Labour members of Parliament, who watched him speak at huge election rallies this month, wonder why he didn’t put so much energy into last year’s campaign to keep Britain in the European Union.
Public displays of unity won’t change the fact that Labour is just as split as the Tories are. Mr. Corbyn has a huge following, especially among people in their 20s who like what he’s saying about equality, social justice and a fairer society. He has been in Parliament since 1983, before they were born, and for them, his back story, which includes a record of staggering disloyalty to previous Labour leaders, is ancient history. He represents hope after years of public spending cuts, and anything that doesn’t sit easily with their rosy view — his friendly relations with Hezbollah, Hamas and former leaders of the Irish Republican Army, for instance — is dismissed as a smear by the hated mainstream media.
It isn’t just Britain’s rampant right-wing press they hate; suspicion of unbiased journalism is something Mr. Corbyn’s most enthusiastic supporters share with Donald Trump’s fan base in the United States. There are strains of anti-Semitism among Mr. Corbyn’s followers, as well as misogyny — as some female BBC journalists have discovered.
His critics concede that he’s changed his tune in recent weeks. After the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, Mr. Corbyn criticized Mrs. May for cutting police numbers, a law and order issue that is not a traditional concern for his section of the party. Whether he has changed his underlying views is another matter: Until he became leader, Mr. Corbyn was best known for a reflexive anti-Western rhetoric that led him to soft-pedal on regimes with terrible human rights records, including Cuba, Iran and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Among people with longer memories, these unsavory connections mean Mr. Corbyn is, and always will be, outside the Labour mainstream. The presence in his office of former members of fringe parties, including a key aide who left the Communist Party of Britain only a few months ago, supports the view that the Labour leadership is in the hands of a hard-left cabal. In an indication of trouble ahead, pro-European Labour members of Parliament who defied Mr. Corbyn’s instructions to vote with Mrs. May’s Tories in favor of triggering Article 50, the formal mechanism to begin Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, scored some of the most impressive results in last Thursday’s election. The two wings of the party are stuck with each other, but it’s a stalemate, not a truce.
Mrs. May has been punished for her colossal misjudgment in calling an unnecessary election, but anyone who is enjoying her humiliation needs to consider some sobering facts. Next week, according to a timetable established before the election, the prime minister is due to begin negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union. She never had a strong hand, but now she looks fatally wounded. As the country faces a moment when the security services are struggling to monitor the roughly 3,000 people suspected of posing a terrorist threat, having a prime minister who has lost her authority is little short of catastrophic.
Another election later this year must be a real possibility. Whether it would produce a clearer result is far from certain. Britain’s relationship with Europe has been a toxic issue for the Conservatives for years, which is why Mr. Cameron gambled on a referendum — and lost. Now the contagion has spread far beyond the Tory Party. Divisions over Europe are tearing the country apart, leaving it weak and unstable in the eyes of a horrified world.
Joan Smith is a novelist and the author of the nonfiction books Misogynies: Reflections on Myths and Malice and The Public Woman.