Theresa May called a snap election she didn’t need to hold to provide what she called a ‘strong and stable’ government for the country.
She has ended up losing her majority, shredding her own authority and plunging Britain and its economy into a period of uncertainty that may require yet another election to resolve. What went wrong? And what should happen now?
Few people saw this coming. Following excellent local election results for the Conservatives and the party’s spectacular victory in the Copeland by-election, the Prime Minister believed she could storm Labour heartlands in the north of England and the Midlands on the back of pro-Brexit opinion there and return to Westminster with a huge majority. Labour feared she was right, bracing themselves for their worst result since the 1930s. Some Labour insiders thought the party would be lucky to win two hundred seats. The early polls largely seemed to confirm these expectations or, at the very least, point to a solid Tory majority.
But it was not to be. The immediate exit poll following the closing of the ballots at ten o’clock on Thursday night predicted that the Conservatives would merely be the largest party. And so it turned out. Mrs May ended up not gaining seats but losing twelve, winning only 319 MPs, seven short of the number needed for a majority of one. Labour gained twenty-nine seats, raising its tally to 261.
Yet these bald figures mask a much more complex picture. The Conservatives actually increased their share of the overall vote by 5.5 percentage points, taking it to 42.4% of the total. As it happens Margaret Thatcher secured exactly the same percentage share in 1983 and yet won with a majority of 144 seats. Mrs May will perhaps feel hard done by. The reason for the difference is that Labour also increased its share of the vote - by a substantial 9.5 percentage points. That took it to 40% of the total, its best result since 2001 when Tony Blair’s New Labour won by 166 seats. In short, against all expectations we are back in two-party politics where an increased share of the overall vote does not so easily convert into seats.
Furthermore, behind the headlines of the Tories’ electoral disaster the party actually did spectacularly well in Scotland where they took twelve of the SNP’s seats. Labour took six and the LibDems three, leaving the SNP one of the principle casualties of the election.
So on their share of the vote and their performance in Scotland, the Conservatives could be said to have had a good election. But these crumbs will be of little comfort. There were other important factors. One was the high turnout of 68.7%. The other was that so many of them were younger voters – the very people who have a habit of not bothering. It seems they rallied to Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘protest’ campaign and to his promises to make their lives better – especially those at university. He said he would get rid of tuition fees and even write off existing student debt. Overall Jeremy Corbyn is almost universally credited with having run an unexpectedly inspiring campaign.
By contrast the Conservatives’ was almost universally condemned as ‘dreadful’. That was the word used by Anna Soubry, one of Mrs May’s own backbenchers. The spectacular U-turn on social care policy, the failure to hit any sustained note of optimism in a country palpably weary of austerity, and the refusal to talk in any detail about Brexit even though the election was called supposedly to provide backing for Mrs May’s Brexit policy, have all been cited as evidence of the dire state of the campaign. But most of all it was the tight grip of the small coterie of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers and the decision to focus the campaign on Mrs May herself, as the ‘strong and stable’ leader which most backfired. Now, having ‘owned’ the campaign, she ‘owns’ the humiliation of having unnecessarily lost the Conservatives their majority. Ms Soubry called on her to consider her position.
But Mrs May is having none of this and is soldiering on. Before lunch on Friday she had taken herself off to the Palace to tell the Queen she could command a majority in the House of Commons. She will need the backing of the ten MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party for what is now a minority Conservative government. But her authority is gone. Increasingly she will be able to act only with the say-so of the DUP and, even more, of her Conservative MP colleagues who are furious at the plight she has led them into. They will demand she ends the practice of trying to govern from a closed room occupied by only the two or three advisers she fully trusts and will make their support conditional on her opening the door and consulting them. In short she is now a lame duck.
Meanwhile, negotiations on Brexit are supposed to begin in ten days’ time. Seen from Europe British politics, in which the referendum itself seemed beyond comprehension, will seem even more baffling now. The EU’s negotiators are bound to wonder whether in Mrs May they still have a British leader strong enough to be able to do a deal. From the British perspective it may now seem that the Prime Minister will have to negotiate a softer Brexit simply to get it through the House of Commons. But that will cause problems with her own hardliners. To many this all seems a recipe not for strength and stability but for chaos and confusion.
For these reasons, many observers regard Mrs May’s decision to soldier on in office as necessarily a short-term measure. They do not believe she can last. The Tory Party is notoriously ruthless in getting rid of its leaders once it conclude that victory cannot be won under them. That’s why there is already talk of a new prime minister and even another election in the foreseeable future. If that turns out to be the case, Brenda of Bristol and no do doubt many more will despair that yet again they are being forced to the polling booths when what they really want is for politicians simply to get on with the job of governing.
What do you make of the election result? Were you surprised by it? Why do you think the Tories did so badly? How much blame do you attach to Mrs May herself? Should she be trying to carry on as Prime Minister or not? What implications do you think the result has for the Brexit negotiations? And do you want another election?
Let us know what you think.