British Elections

Europe's Most Political Baby

Princess DPA
Could the birth of a princess swing the election?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If polls are to be believed, Britain will face a hung parliament and months of uncertainty after its general elections.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Britain votes in a general election on May 7.
    • The YouGov polls on May 4 show Conservatives and Labour neck and neck with 33 percent of the votes each.
    • Prince William’s wife Kate gave birth to a daughter on Saturday, May 2.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The world’s newest princess held her first press conference in London at the weekend, just six days before the country her great-grandmother reigns over holds what is looking like the closest run election in living memory.

Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana slept while her parents Prince William and his wife Kate, smiled wordlessly at the cameras Saturday afternoon as they left the hospital where she had been born just a few hours earlier.

The British royal family are strictly political neutral: they never express an opinion on party politics. Queen Elizabeth II and her family never vote or run for political office. But polls indicate that the British election on Thursday will be so nail-bitingly close that every tiny thing, from a royal birth to a burst of sunshine, could sway the final results.

Traditional political thinking suggests that major royal events boost the center-right Conservative party, currently in power with the Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives are traditional, pro-royal and stand for continuity and stability. Labour voters are more likely to question the amount of tax payer money spent on the royal family, and suggest that inherited privilege is not something to be applauded.

But this time round, the situation is not so simple. The polls do not show any immediate royal impact. The latest polls carried out by YouGov on May 4 show Conservatives and Labour at a dead heat with 33 percent of the votes each. If anything, Labour support has risen in the last week slightly. Labour leader Ed Miliband, who had started the campaign looking awkward, has become more statesmanlike.

The idea that Conservatives somehow stand for stability is also changing. David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if he wins. This is triggering a wave of anxiety in the business community, which has traditionally prefered the light regulation and low taxation regimes of center-right governments.

The SNP is strongly anti-austerity, pro-welfare state and pro-Europe. Any alliance with the SNP would have to reflect these values.

In April, HSBC bank chairman Douglas Flint said the company is considering moving its headquarters out of London amid uncertainty over Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Jacob Nell, an analyst at Morgan Stanley also warned that uncertainty over a referendum could affect foreign direct investment in Britain. American and Asian companies tend to use the U.K. as a base to access the European Union market, and this would be at risk if the British left the European Union.

On the one hand, markets appear calm: sterling is strong and the FTSE 100 index of the country’s largest listed companies hit a record high in April. However, the Investment Association, which tracks funds movement, showed that investors took a record 1 billion pounds linked to the U.K. stock exchange in March 2015, in what appeared to be nerves about the election.

The economy is also shaky. The latest budget showed economic growth, but Ross Walker, senior economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland pointed out in a note that the “U.K. is only half way through an awkward fiscal adjustment and continues to run one of the largest deficits in the developed world.”

It is also not clear who the Conservative Party would form a coalition with, were it to fail to win an outright majority, as most polls predict. At the moment, it has a partnership with the Liberal Democrats, but the current coalition has cost the smaller party thousands of voters and there is no guarantee it would make the same alliance again.

The anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party has lost support in recent weeks, and would make erratic bedfellows. Meanwhile, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which could win up to eight seats, is still sitting on the fence and could play the role of kingmaker.

Cameron Miliband Reuters
Mr. Miliband or Mr. Cameron? A stark choice. Source: Reuters

 

Labour offers an equally uncertain future. As things stand, the party may well have to rely on the Scottish National Party to form a coalition, but Mr. Miliband is refusing to formally accept this may be a possibility. The SNP is strongly anti-austerity, pro-welfare state and pro-Europe. Any Labour alliance with the SNP would have to reflect these values.

“Consensus opinion appears to be that a center-left Labour led government would be more stable than a center-right Conservative-led one. This view appears to be based on a superficial view of expected center-left and center-right seat totals,” said Mr. Walker at RBS.

“In practice, we suspect a Labour-led government would be as unstable as a Conservative-led one, given expectations that the SNP will be the third largest party.”

Meanwhile, Leanne Wood, the leader of Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru, said on Monday that Labour would be “arrogant” to assume it could rely on her party’s support.

Britain is experiencing a huge constitutional change: a possible renegotiation of European Union membership, the normalization of coalition politics, and the prospect of nationalist, pro-separatist parties dominating Westminster.


Video: World welcomes the royal baby.

In this climate, Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, to give her official title, has been entangled with the British constitution since before she was born. Her mother announced her pregnancy in September, just a few days before Scotland voted over the issue of its independence in a referendum. The pro-separatist side had run a successful campaign, but eventually lost the vote by 55 to 45 percent.

James Kirkup, a political correspondent for The Telegraph newspaper explained the link between royalty and referendum at the time: “The nationalist-led case for independence has emotion, myth and magic to spare. The No campaign has failed to counter that with its own story of shared history. A royal baby is part of that story,” he wrote.

Prime Minister David Cameron unwittingly confirmed the view that the royal family supported the No campaign after the results were announced when he was caught on microphone telling former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg about the queen’s relief at the results.

Mr. Cameron, who had forgotten he had a microphone clipped to him, was speaking with Mr. Bloomberg at the United Nations offices in New York in late September. He said:  “The definition of relief is being the prime minister of the United Kingdom and ringing the Queen and saying ‘It’s all right, it’s okay.’ That was something.” He added: “She purred down the line.”

What sounds the queen will be making after Thursday is anyone’s guess.

 

Meera Selva covers European and German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: selva@handelsblatt.com

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