“Strong and stable.”
That little phrase was always something of a hostage to fortune. Now it looks downright hilarious, in a blackly comic sort of way.
Just over six weeks ago, an apparently popular prime minister succumbed to the temptation to take on an apparently unelectable opponent to shore up her majority and put Britain into a comfortable negotiating position ahead of Brexit.
Instead, we’ve got a hung parliament. And the possibility of another general election. And a stalled Brexit negotiating process on which the clock is ticking.
“Strong and stable.”
This year only: get two elections for the price of one
Hands up – I didn’t expect to be writing this particular Money Morning. I thought the Tories would win comfortably.
Clearly, I was wrong. And what’s irritating is that the evidence was there. Smart people (like Nate Silver, US polling guru extraordinaire) were warning that we might see something unexpected. The tone throughout the campaign was off. The polls might have been all over the place, but they mostly didn’t scream “landslide”.
So a dispassionate look at reality on the ground would have made it clear that this morning’s result was a distinct possibility. As with so many contrarian bets, the real problem was confirmation bias.
I just struggled mightily with the idea that the British electorate would come anywhere close to backing Jeremy Corbyn.
Anyway, that’s a useful personal lesson for the future. What happens now?
The results aren’t all quite in yet. But we do know that Britain is facing a hung parliament.
The Conservatives went into this election with a slim majority, at 330 seats (331 if you include the speaker). They needed 326 to get a majority. It looks like they’ll get 318.
Labour are set to get 262, the SNP have really taken a beating, falling to 35, and the LibDems have avoided the wipeout they’d feared.
What does all of this mean?
Long story short (and more on this might be clear by the time you read this), Theresa May can try to put a government together. If so, it would almost certainly have to be with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Alternatively, Jeremy Corbyn could try to put together a coalition with the SNP, LibDems and Green Party.
A coalition seems unlikely. Everyone saw what happened to the junior partner after 2010. So neither of these options seems likely to survive the rigours of actual government. The other option is to form a minority government and try to struggle through.
As I say, this is a fast-changing process – it’s not even clear as I write whether May will resign or not. However, my gut feeling at the moment is that we’ll end up with another election before the end of the year.
And what is very clear is that Britain faces a whole lot more uncertainty in the near term. So what does that mean for your money?
It’s easy to say this – but don’t panic
As I said yesterday, the main thing is – don’t panic. None of this will be much fun, but at the same time, there’s not a lot you can do about it in investing terms.
Firstly, sterling is likely to have a tough time over the next few weeks. It cratered when the exit poll pointed to a hung parliament, and then cratered again around 5am when it became absolutely clear that there was no chance of the exit poll being wrong.
That shouldn’t make any particular difference to your investments (particularly if they’ve weathered the Brexit volatility), because you don’t invest based on exchange rate forecasts, and you already have a well-diversified portfolio with plenty of international exposure – I hope. And in any case, a drop in sterling typically means a rise in the FTSE 100.
Secondly, the Brexit clock starts ticking from 19 June and there might be no one on the British side of the negotiating table. We’ll hear a lot of talk about how a “soft” Brexit is more likely now, and that idea might help to cushion the pound somewhat.
But in reality, Brexit was never likely to be “hard”. Everyone wants a trade deal. It’s just about what that costs and what the precise immigration rules end up being. So while Brexit will take up a lot of column inches, it’s still a longer-term issue, with plenty of changes possible before the final deal, and it’s not something that should have a big impact on your portfolio.
Thirdly, on the upside, this particular election result does suggest that another Scottish independence referendum has genuinely been put back for a generation (that’s a human generation, not a fruitfly one, as many nationalists had apparently believed).
It’ll be interesting to see how the SNP shifts tack now that voters in Scotland are clearly demanding a focus on governance, rather than never-ending calls for independence. But in any case, it’s one less worry for the fundamental stability of the UK.
Finally (for the moment), I think you can forget about any serious steps towards tackling Britain’s big problems (too much debt, too many unfunded pension promises, and too low productivity).
If May’s campaign demonstrated anything, it’s the sheer folly of attempting to tell voters something approaching the truth, rather than what they want to hear. From now on, expect manifestos that promise pain-free solutions that someone else will pay for.
A shame that – but that’s why you own a bit of gold in your portfolio. It’s insurance against short-termism and the unfortunate reality that the road to Hell is usually also the one of least resistance.
We’ll have a lot more on the election in the next issue of MoneyWeek, and handily enough, we’ll also have a tax and pensions supplement to help you make the most of your wealth and hang on to it in these interesting times.
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