It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Fortified by a 20-point lead in the opinion polls, Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, called a general election in April assuming that, all things being equal, she couldn’t possibly lose. In 2015, David Cameron had won a small and fragile majority in the House of Commons, but this was Mrs. May’s opportunity to transform it into, as she said, a “strong and stable” government that would be well-placed to lead the U.K. through the choppy waters of leaving the European Union. An increased majority, she promised, would “strengthen” her hand in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.
Some hand. Some strength. Some stability. May lost 12 seats, winning just 318 constituencies and thereby falling short of the 326 required for a parliamentary majority.
Far from strengthening her hand through the election—a curious ambition in the first place, since it presumed Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron would be impressed by the British prime minister’s electoral mandate—she has, to switch anatomical metaphors, shot herself in the foot. Rather than romping to victory, May has come up short. Her government’s strength and stability now rest on her ability to purchase the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
It is impossible to avoid the thought that this election has proved one of the greatest self-owns in modern political history. By common consent, this was a dismal campaign in which May took victory for granted and, remarkably, ran a campaign of startling inadequacy. She had made much of how Europe’s leaders would soon discover that she is, in her own words, “a bloody difficult woman.” The British people determined that, actually, she was just a bloody useless woman and certainly not fit to be trusted with untrammeled power. The Tory view that May would be their greatest electoral asset was revealed to be chimerical.
Despite that, May remains in denial. She might have won 44 percent of the vote, but this still feels like a monumental defeat. She did not receive what she had asked for—a Tory majority of at least 50 and, preferably, 75 or more—and no amount of damage control can make this result look any better for the Conservatives. Like Monty Python’s Black Knight, May has reacted to the loss of an arm by insisting this setback is nothing more than a flesh wound.
How did it come to this? Her opponent, after all, was Jeremy Corbyn, a far-left leader of the Labour party whose agenda was opposed by the overwhelming majority of his own parliamentary colleagues. Corbyn, the subject of a ferocious assault from Britain’s right-wing tabloid press, was widely deemed unelectable. So it proved, even if he also contrived to increase Labour’s vote by almost 10 percent—the greatest such single increase in any election since 1945.
But Corbyn tapped into something important: He offered an alternative to the status quo and many voters, especially the young, warmed to a politician who promised something, anything different. In that respect, the election should be considered a delayed reaction to the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Britons have endured years of astringent austerity during which time median wages have stagnated and a view has developed, however inchoate, that something, somewhere, has gone badly wrong. Corbyn offered some measure of relief from that; he promised that hope was not a disreputable sentiment and many voters were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
By contrast, May produced a Gradgrind manifesto. Life was tough, you know, and only May could be trusted to confront the major challenges facing the United Kingdom. Managing Brexit was part of this, but not all of it. There was, moreover, a joyless quality to her campaign—an “eat your oatmeal” manifesto for a people thirsting for something sweeter.
That was compounded by a measure of political cowardice. For reasons that can only be guessed at but which may owe something to her flat-footed inability to think on her feet, May declined all opportunities to debate her opponents on television. This projected an image that was neither “strong” nor “stable.” Instead it hinted at an unattractive combination of complacency and fear.
There were other missteps. The Conservative manifesto proposed that henceforth the cost of pensioners’ social care—for those stricken with dementia—be paid from by the sale of their houses. In one sense, this was a bold move to address a time bomb of a problem caused by a rapidly ageing population. But it was also politically inept. This so-called “dementia tax” was a losing proposition. In a remarkable development, May reversed on her manifesto commitment before the election had even been held and then compounded her incompetence by insisting that she hadn’t changed her mind at all. Her reputation for competence—her strongest suit, in the absence of any other suits—was ruined.
Voters could sense this just as they could appreciate that they were in danger of being taken for granted by the Conservative high command. Never underestimate the power of contrarianism in Britain. May might, on balance, still be preferable to Corbyn, but that should not be confused with any sense that she was an attractive electoral proposition in her own right.
Furthermore, although May insisted that the election be used to strengthen her hand in Brexit talks, she has never once deigned to explain to the British people what she actually hopes to achieve from those negotiations. “Brexit means Brexit” was her miserably inadequate mantra. Doubtless it does, but what does Brexit means Brexit mean? Brits remain none the wiser.
All this confirms a sense that, Brexit or no Brexit, Britain is madly adrift. It is hard to recall a previous election in which the choices available were less appetizing. In that respect, a hung parliament, in which no party can command majority support, is an entirely fitting, and indeed justified, response to the choice presented to the electorate. With blind stubbornness, May insisted this changed nothing, but the people are wiser than that. Collectively, they knew what they were doing when they declined to offer a ringing endorsement of either major party. And who, frankly, can blame them?
It is now 30 years since the Conservatives won a thumping majority in the House of Commons. Britain has changed since then and the Tory dependence on old and white voters seems likely to be subject to the laws of diminishing returns in future elections too. Then again, Labour cannot count on demographic changes working to its advantage either; the British left remains more dependent on London and university towns than is wholly electorally sustainable.
Perhaps that’s the real message of this election: Britain’s divisions desperately require a political party, and a prime minister, capable of rising above them. On current evidence, however, there is no sign of that kind of savior riding to the rescue. A fractious, disgruntled, country remains just that. The electorate sent a clear message on Thursday: Trust nobody. The U.K. awaits the arrival of a politician who can recognize and then surmount that; on the evidence available, it will be waiting for some time yet.
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