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General Election 2017 - the Fog of War ?

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Patrick Kelliher

At the end of August 1914, the French Army was in disarray. Its disastrous Plan XVII offensive had cost it over 300,000 casualties in one month, its bloodiest toll in all of WWI. The German commander Helmuth von Moltke the Younger sensed the possibility of a rout. Putting aside the detailed Schlieffen Plan they were supposed to be following, he gave two armies the command “Pursue Direction Epinal” for them to chase the beaten French towards the town of Epinal. The counter-stroke was an abject failure with the Germans suffering over 60,000 casualties in the following weeks. Many historians feel this diversion may have contributed to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and the prospect of a quick victory on the Western Front.

So where am I going with this says you ? well I was put in mind of this by the recent snap election decision by Theresa May. Like the French Army, the opposition Labour Party is in disarray. Just as von Moltke sensed a modern day Cannae, no doubt May sees a 60+ seat majority in the House of Commons.

The problem is the younger von Moltke should have heeded the advice of his uncle, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder who came up with the phrase “no plan survives first contact with reality”. Unexpected events get in the way and can overwhelm the “best laid plans of mice and men”. May’s plans for a large majority to secure her position in Brexit talks could come unstuck when she hits the campaign trail.

I do think Labour will take a further battering in the coming election. Jeremy Corbyn seems a decent man but I find him underwhelming. The press will vilify him and he won’t be helped by persistent mutiny in the ranks. Corbyn will struggle to convince floating voters that he can lead the country when he struggles to lead his own party. Like John Major, infighting will drain his authority.

Nonetheless, I think the scale of Labour’s defeat may not be as bad as their strategists may fear. All politics is local, and the local hospital may be fraying at the seams like most of the NHS. Many Labour MPs will be able to hold on to their seats fighting a rearguard action on the NHS and increasingly harsh and often capricious benefit cuts.

Then there are the LibDems and UKIP. I think the LibDems can make significant gains in this election with Remain voters disillusioned with the Conservatives drift towards a hard Brexit. I would not be surprised if old LibDem warriors like Vince Cable stage a comeback at the expense of the Tories.

As for UKIP, commentators have written it off but I would not be so hasty. For sure, its image has been tarnished by infighting and chaos, but I would not be surprised if it made gains at the expense of both Labour and the Conservatives. In the 2015 election, it made strong gains in many northern Labour seats and it may build on that with Labour supporters put off by Jeremy Corbyn. It could outflank the Tories by promising to cut foreign aid and retain the triple lock on pensions.

Thus the centre ground of English politics which May has set her sights on could splinter with any Labour losses offset by the election of blocks of pro-Remain LibDems and pro-Brexit UKIP limiting gains. With expectations of victory dashed, authority will ebb from the Prime Minister. She may struggle to keep her own party together between Europhile and Eurosceptic wings. Labour could also splinter – one could see Blairite, anti-Corbyn Europhiles leave to form a party like the SDP.

Rather than create a decisive majority and a strong government for Brexit negotiations, the election could result in chaos. Sterling would plummet and the Bank of England may have to raise interest rates to stop the slide. The Bank of England severe macro-economic stress for banks [1] which envisages a shock to sterling with the pound falling to £1:US$0.85 leading to UK inflation rising to 5% by the end of 2018 with base rates rising to 4% to fight inflation could become reality.

Just as von Moltke’s pursuit to Epinal may have proved a diversion from the main objective, future historians may look back and say this election was where May took her eye off the ball from the “long game” of Brexit negotiations, ultimately weakening her hand and contributing to a diplomatic, political and economic quagmire.

[1] see p14 of http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/financialstability/Documents/stresstesting/2017/keyelements.pdf  

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