But May had more problems—she was also failing on an individual level. She introduced a policy which forced the elderly to use their assets to pay for their end-of-life care after their death, up to the last £100,000. In tabloid-speak, this translated to: The government will take your house after you die if you get dementia. It seemed almost designed to alienate the over-65s, a demographic which breaks hard for the Conservatives and is disciplined about voting. After a few days of increasing alarm among Conservative strategists, May backed down.
She’d never been a particularly confident media performer, but the reversal seemed to take the wind out of her. Suddenly she appeared horribly nervous on TV, laughing mirthlessly at critical questions and then grimacing. Her mojo, in so far as she ever had it, was gone. The results were startling. At the start of the campaign she enjoyed an astonishing 24-point lead. Just weeks later, some pollsters put it at one percent.
But political screw-ups and unforeseen events only partly explain the Brexit-election-which-wasn’t. The rest of it was a conscious strategy. May was trying to hold an election on a subject which she all but refused to discuss.
Her Brexit argument was not really intellectual or even ideological—it was tonal. The intention was to project an image of control, without having to grapple with the issues which Brexit actually entailed.
Just like Trump, May is pretending that difficult questions have easy answers. Sometimes this verges on utter meaninglessness, like when she repeatedly insists that “Brexit means Brexit.” Sometimes it is simply false, like when she says “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But actually, this massaging of public feeling has proved quite popular, and far easier than discussing the brutal reality of Brexit.
May has been able to get away with it due to two advantages which Trump does not posses: a supportive press and opposition party. Most newspapers in the U.K. are fully behind the Brexit process, so they do not ask May any difficult questions on the issue. And Labour also largely supports Brexit, so it has no incentive to challenge her on it.
By Wednesday night, May was projected to win in the biggest landslide since Margaret Thatcher. After today, the election will be over and she will claim that the vote is a mandate for her plan. But she has not actually deigned to tell the British people her plan. Instead, she is asking for a mandate on her judgment, which has a certain irony given that it has been shown to be deeply flawed over the course of the campaign.
As for Corbyn, failure is not necessarily what it once was in British politics. Where party leaders used to typically stand down after losing an election, he is likely to stay. There will probably be a leadership contest, but it seems likely that his supporters in the Labour party will continue to support him, in the Trump-like belief that it is media bias—not voter preference—which has kept him from Downing Street. He is unlikely to challenge May over Brexit any more after the election than he had done beforehand.
Days after the results, those Brexit talks will begin in Brussels. And then it will be impossible to hide the realities of what Britain has chosen to do. What the Brexit election did not provide will be left to the cold, hard slap of economic and political reality.