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.