The British general election of 2016, held after the collapse of the minority Cameron government of 2015-2016, is recorded in history alongside the 1945, 1979 and 1997 general elections as an election of major historical significance. In short, a key turning point in the politics of Britain.
Not only was it noticeable for the radical overturning of conventional politics with UKIP’s emergence as the largest party in the House of Commons, but also for the election when Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system finally suffered a major malfunction.
Following UKIP’s modest entry into the Commons in the 2015 general election, and the hung result of that election with the Conservatives remaining the largest party but just barely ahead of Labour, it was not surprising that a second election was to occur within a year. This was triggered primarily by the inability of either David Cameron or Nick Clegg to convince their respective parliamentary parties to consider a second coalition, and the fact that a Labour/Lib pact would just narrowly miss a majority.
The following months were hellish for Cameron, with UKIP, the Conservatives and Labour all level pegging in opinion polls in the early twenties, and with the Lib Dems, now freed from the shackles of government, stabilising at mid-teen level. The Conservative party was now engaged in open civil war between the minority Cameron modernisers and the majority who wished for an open pact with UKIP for the expected next ballot. Cameron and Hague, his foreign secretary, both openly opposed such a pact. It eventually resulted in a vote of no confidence passed by his own parliamentary party, followed by his resignation as both Conservative leader and Prime Minister a mere eleven months after the last election.
The snap general election of 2016 pushed the voting system, which relied on two overwhelming political parties to function, beyond breaking limit. The new Conservative leader, committed to British withdrawal from the EU, turned a blind eye to eurosceptic constituency associations deselecting dozens of sitting Tory MPs, and replacing them with hardline “Better off outers”. This in turn resulted in many of those same MPs contesting their constituencies as Cameron Conservatives, aided by the fact that the former prime minister was still more popular in the country than his party. In a fit of pique, the right wing media suggested, Cameron set out on a tour throughout the election campaign, canvassing, and speaking, with much media attention, for those deselected MPs who had remained loyal to him.
Election night was one of the highest rated television events of the year, as the country literally hadn’t a clue which party was going to win. As the results came in, the fact that so many seats were in contention to three or four serious players meant that across the countries seats were falling to victors by tiny majorities, often with barely more than a quarter of the vote to the winner.
Labour won the national popular vote, mostly by piling up huge majorities in their safe seats. The Liberal Democrats recovered a dozen seats lost in the bloodbath of 2015, leaving them in the high thirties. But the real spectacular was the battle between UKIP, the Conservatives, and the Cameron Independents, where in seat after seat the Tories lost to UKIP by wafer thin margins.
At 2:15am, to chaotic scenes in television studios, UKIP crossed over the majority threshold, eventually winning a 12 seat majority on a vote of 30% to Labour’s 32%. In his Folkstone constituency, where he’d easily been re-elected, Nigel Farage struggled to be heard about the ecstatic cheers from supporters as he declared that the old establishment had been swept away.
The following days were a mix of the traditional and the bizarre. Farage met with the Queen and was asked to form a government. The media struggled to identify what a UKIP cabinet would look like, given the broad unfamiliarity with the party’s other frontbenchers. Within days, the media was filling up with interviews from newly elected UKIP MPs who were very quick to give interviews as to their priorities. Hanging, immigration, EU withdrawal, and single mothers all seemed to feature prominently, sometimes linking one as a solution to another.
Farage, fearful of the dangers that an unmanaged message could do to his new government, decided to assemble his new parliamentary party to clarify what happened next. Meeting in the Palace of Westminster, Farage received a rude awakening. Given the fact that most of the PP were middle aged men not used to taking orders from anyone, and in a party with no tradition of whips or party control, what started out as a good natured celebration of their extraordinary election victory quickly turned into heated discussion. When Farage announced how he intended to appoint his cabinet and whips, the meeting turned on him. Speaker after speaker pointed out that they were not willing to tolerate the usual top down management of “the old parties” and that they, the parliamentary party, should decide both the cabinet and the whips.
Three hours in, and acutely aware that the meeting was being tweeted about and becoming a major story online, Farage demanded a vote. Either he was party leader and Prime Minister, or he resigned. He won, but with 40% of his MPs voting against him at their very first PP meeting.
The story exploded, with stories of UKIP in chaos before Parliament even meeting. Aware of his position, Farage proceeded to name a cabinet, including some of the bigger mouths who had opposed him in the PP, in the hope of keeping the party together. Within hours of naming them, however, the media was awash with the less conventional remarks attributed to new cabinet ministers. Four hours after that the Secretary of State for Energy had resigned after a radio interview was dug up where he referred to the country being “flooded with darkies”. A number of other ministers held on by their fingernails.
When Parliament met, the chamber was in a boisterous mood. Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems and a dozen Cameron Independents all seemed slightly shell-shocked to be sitting together, peering across the floor at the mocking ranks of usurpers opposite who had taken THEIR country off them.
When Farage unveiled at his weekly PP meeting (a concession to the 40%) the government’s legislative progamme, another heated row broke out. The lead item, not surprisingly, was a bill to hold a referendum on British withdrawal from the EU. A large number of speakers wanted to know why a referendum was needed, and that their election was the de facto referendum. Farage lost his temper, pointing out that they had promised it in the election, to which a former used car sales man accused him of being a “Brussels puppet”. This caused a major row, during which a number of members came to blows.
One member then suggested that members be permitted to propose their own bill on withdrawal without a referendum, and the house could decide. When Farage opposed this, another row broke out, as a number of members announced that they intended to introduce their own bills on different issues regardless of what the Cabinet thought.
Farage pleaded with the members present that the government had to have a consistent programme. Opponents pointed out that the Cabinet worked for Parliament, not the other way around, and it was perfectly reasonable for private members bills to be decided independent of the government. Farage lost the vote by 60%.
In Northern Ireland, the new UKIP Secretary of State, ignoring advice from officials and both the First and Deputy First Minister, gave instructions for union jacks to be flown from every public building in the province, including PSNI stations. The Chief Constable openly refused, but the other buildings were bedecked, and by nightfall there was serious rioting in Belfast and Derry. When the Chief Constable was ordered by the Secretary of State to “Shoot the rioters” he phoned the Prime Minister. The Secretary was recalled to London and the flags quietly taken down again.
In his briefing by defence and intelligence staff, the Prime Minister was informed that, given UKIP’s friendly noises about Putin before the election, The US and NATO allies had suspended intelligence sharing and defence planning cooperation until the UK position could be clarified. On the other hand, Moscow invited the Prime Minister to visit as an honoured friend and ally.
Attention to Parliament soared as the government’s bills and those of UKIP private members made their way through the House. The UK withdrawal from EU bill only scraped through with Conservative support after the Immediate Withdrawal bill actually got a larger number of UKIP MPs voting for it, but failed to win a majority.
A referendum on hanging passed the house, but was then blocked by the House of Lords, and Farage threatened to flood the House with UKIP nominees. The House of Lords, under a plan hatched by Labour and Lib Dem peers, then returned the bill to the Commons, amended to extend the death penalty to tax cheats (specifically targeted at certain UKIP MPs being prosecuted for same) and MPs who cheated on their expenses, forcing UKIP MPs to vote to remove those clauses. The media went wild with stories of UKIP MPs exempting themselves from the death penalty. The bill was quietly sent to committee for a long period of contemplation.
The new Home Secretary, on her first day, scrapped the EU channels at UK entry points, requiring all EU citizens to go through the same passport control as all other non-UK citizens. She seemed genuinely shocked when the British media started reporting stories of UK tourists having to do the same in other EU countries in retaliation, and being handed out leaflets by other EU governments explaining that their delay was because of her actions. This started to become a common theme with UKIP ministers as they took office, being surprised that their decisions had consequences in other member states, consequences that other member states were not willing to accept, and so retaliated. The British embassy in Madrid reported that Spanish Foreign Affairs ministry had told them that if the British health minister scrapped the right of EU citizens to emergency healthcare, Spain would deliver every one of the one million UK pensioners in Spain who required healthcare (and got it, under an EU directive) to the UK embassy for treatment.
The flood of private members bills, which Prime Minister Farage had to tolerate, was very entertaining from a media perspective, and viewing figures for the BBC’s Parliament channel upturned sharply. They caused serious discipline problems in the UKIP PP however.
A bill to limit immigration to white former Commonwealth citizens (which insisted that the Foreign and Commonwealth must refer to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia in all official communications, and Mumbai as Bombay) was narrowly defeated, as was a bill to scrap maternity and unfair dismissal legislation, both bills which then caused major splits in the PP.
A bill to abolish Same Sex Marriage was opposed by the small libertarian wing of the party, resulting in a junior minister suggesting the existance of a ” secret homosexual mafia” in the party.
Another bill, this time to abolish the BBC resulted in hundreds of celebrities appearing across the media in opposition, and hastened the party’s slip into single digits in the polls as Del Boy, Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes condemned the proposal.
Farage himself had to intervene to vote against a bill abolishing all discrimination legislation, and which resulted in some of his own MPs pelting him in the chamber with thirty silver coins.
This then led to 37 UKIP MPs quitting the party to form a hard-right Common Sense Party, and depriving the government of a majority.
Finally, six months after entering government, the British people went to vote on EU membership. On a turnout of 49%, the British people voted by 50.3% to remain in the EU.
The reaction in Parliament was riotous. Labour and Lib Dem MPs taunted UKIP MPs. The Tories, who had opposed withdrawal before a proper renegotiation, didn’t know where to look. On the UKIP benches, however, speaker after speaker spoke of conspiracies, brainwashing, rigged ballots, and a suggestion that “Brussels” had somehow “fixed” the result. One UKIP MP called on President Putin to send troops to the UK to prevent a coup by EU and NATO special forces. A number of scuffles had to be broken up on the floor. Then Farage addressed the house.
He informed the house of his disappointment, but accepted that it was the will of the British people, and that it was just plain nonsense to suggest that the result had been rigged.
“Indeed,” he remarked in a sarcastic tone, if some members had spent more time canvassing on the doorstep and less time nursing Martinis in the members bar pontificating on Giant Lizards in Brussels, we might have gotten a different result!”
Half his parliamentary party exploded in anger, including one who rushed him and was floored only by a straight blow to the nose.
By that evening, half the UKIP PP were now sitting as members of the Common Sense Party, and were tabling a motion of no confidence that every other party was sure to support. Members of the Libertarian and “The Way Things Should Be” traditional values wing of the party were openly arguing (and sometimes fighting) in the corridors of the palace.
Farage announced a snap general election.
Three weeks later, Labour under the other Miliband, now returned from New York with an unfortunate tendency to talk about sidewalks and checks, came out ten seats short of a majority, and sat down with Lib Dem leader Tim Farron to negotiate a coalition. The Conservatives took up position as Her Majesty’s Opposition, now led by elder statesman William Hague following the healing of old wounds. Other parties had a very modest showing in the house.