Has there ever been a more topsy-turvy election? On 8 June 2017, the Conservatives won the most seats, the most votes, and then formed a government, yet they are the undisputed losers of the election; Labour came second, but are feted as if they were the victors. Theresa May was returned as Prime Minister yet faces political oblivion; Jeremy Corbyn still sits on the wrong side of the Commons, but his position as leader of the opposition has never been more secure. It’s hard to think of another election where forming a government was perceived as a spectacular failure and failing to form one was celebrated as a success.
After the EU referendum and Trump, we should perhaps not be surprised at being surprised, but the 2017 election had new tricks up its sleeve. The opinion polls – with the exception of YouGov’s election model – were once again spectacularly wrong: nothing new there. But it was not only psephological soothsayers who had a bad night, so too did many of the core tenets of British politics: the two-party system was supposed to be dead, yet here was an election in which the two main parties received over 80 per cent of votes cast, the highest combined share since 1970; nor are election campaigns supposed to matter, since outcomes are determined by economic fundamentals, yet over six weeks a catastrophic Tory campaign and an unprecedented groundswell for Labour upturned everyone’s expectations.
Indeed, it is easy to forget just how clear-cut the outcome was assumed to be when Theresa May called the election in late April. According to the polls, the Conservatives enjoyed a – surely insurmountable – 20-point lead over Labour. Many pundits and academics predicted a landslide, and May clearly thought she would at least extend her majority. She wanted the election to be a rerun of the EU referendum and her advisors had a cunning plan to hoover up former UKIP voters and bag Labour Leavers by projecting May at the helm of a ‘strong and stable’ majority government, entrusted to deliver Brexit, while depicting the prospect of Corbyn’s Labour in cahoots with the Scottish Nationalists and Greens as ‘a coalition of chaos’.
Instead, May became Maybot, bleeping soundbites while failing to answer questions or even go on TV debates to fail to answer them. The Tory manifesto offered a grim, retrograde vision, with an inexplicable policy on social care, swiftly labelled a ‘dementia tax’, that would hit older voters. Meanwhile, Corbyn addressed huge crowds and harnessed social media to bypass what many of his supporters believe, with good reason, to be a biased mainstream media. Whether for reasons of ideology or triangulation, Labour avoided the Conservatives’ trap of making the election all about Brexit, instead attacking austerity and promising to increase spending on public services. The Labour Manifesto contained popular (note: not populist) policies on university tuition fees, renationalisation of some public services, and increased taxation for high earners.
It was a fiscal formula denounced by Blairites – and indeed by the man himself – as electoral suicide. But it was in fact an electoral pick-me-up, energising the base and drawing in new voters. Young people turned out for a man the bien pensant had ridiculed as a 70s throwback; the majority of those under the tender age of 45 decided that Labour’s vision of a society was preferable to that of the Tories; and Labour increased its share of middle class (ABC1) votes by 12 percent, which was neatly mirrored by the Conservatives increasing their share of working class (C2DE) votes by 12 percent – so at least class dealignment didn’t get trashed by this election. Support for UKIP predictably collapsed – their vote share falling from the 12.9 per cent achieved in 2015 to just 1.8 percent – but not to the Tories’ clear benefit, as May had hoped. The Lib Dems failed to capitalise on being the only nationwide pro-Remain party; while the end of the SNP’s dominance in Scotland added to both main parties’ seat tally – though (again in topsy-turvy fashion) more to the Conservatives than Labour.
The most obvious casualty of all this is the Prime Minister, who is now mortally wounded. By calling an unnecessary election – having previously promised she would do no such thing – and losing her majority, May’s time is up. If Gordon Brown could not shake off a reputation for indecision after he failed to call a snap election in October 2007, then May certainly cannot recover from calling one and losing a majority. The campaign exposed her as a robotic performer, lacking imagination, empathy, and skill. The Maybot image has subsumed her previous reputation as a ‘bloody difficult woman’, which could always be played as a backhanded compliment. The only reason she remains a resident of Number 10 is that Tory grandees have calculated her immediate dispatch would do the party more harm than good. As her nemesis, George Osborne, has said, she is a ‘dead woman walking’; a comment made in bad taste with barely concealed glee by the architect of austerity, but no less true for all that.
The Conservative minority government must now rely on the ten votes of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, whose support has cost the exchequer £1bn to date, though this surely won’t be their final invoice. This said, the DUP are unlikely to vote against the Tories on any major issues, knowing that the collapse of the government could see a new election and a (pro-Republican) Corbyn in power. Instead, the main threat to May will come from her own party. Rumours of plots are already circulating, with the current bookies’ favourite, David Davis, apparently ahead of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the beyond-parody Old Etonian. However, with Labour now narrowly ahead in the polls, the one thing that will probably get May through the coming months is that Conservatives will do almost anything to avoid another election, including tolerating a leader who has put many of their jobs at risk.
This new political landscape threatens to further the pain of Britain’s departure from the European Union. Brexit was already a dauntingly complex process. May hoped a landslide would give her enough parliamentary headroom to see off restive Brexiteers on her backbenches, as the inevitable compromises and failures unfold. But she has instead empowered them, while at the same time turning Britain into an international laughing stock. As a result, she enters into the most difficult political negotiation of recent history as a lame duck PM at the head of a weak government.
Were she inclined to read political science during her sleepless nights, May might try to seek solace in two-level game theory, which would suggest that a weakened domestic position can, paradoxically, strengthen a government’s hand in international negotiations. On this logic, reducing a government’s ‘win-set’ at home means international negotiators can extract more from their counterparts by exploiting their lack of room for domestic manoeuvre. But alas the design of Article 50 means that Brexit is not an international negotiation in the traditional mould, rather an asymmetric process in which one party can dictate to another while the clock ticks.
The EU has two objectives, with one significantly more important than the other: first and foremost, it will seek to ensure the stability and integrity of the remaining EU27; and second, it will try to limit the economic damage to itself of a major country’s departure. The former, however, constrains the latter. The EU cannot allow a country to depart without incurring significant costs, and it certainly cannot condone any arrangement that allows the departing state to retain most of the benefits of membership without its obligations. This is not vindictiveness, but plain rationality. As has already begun to happen, the British government will be forced to dance to the EU’s tune.
This is unlikely to play well at Westminster. Fears of government collapse notwithstanding, it is hard to see Europhobes on the Conservative backbenches staying quiet through Britain’s defenestration, which is exactly why May called the election in the first place. One under-recognised aspect of Corbyn’s much criticised acceptance of Brexit, is the problem this creates for May. Had he positioned Labour in opposition to Brexit, May could at least tried to face down her backbenchers by claiming that any rebellion jeopardised not just her leadership, but Brexit itself. With Corbyn promising to ‘respect’ the referendum, she cannot even mobilise the threat of a pro-Remain government being swept into power. When she is removed, perhaps the best that May can hope for is that David Cameron’s decision to set in train this whole disaster will save her from being remembered as the worst Prime Minister of modern times.
James Hampshire is Reader in Politics at the University of Sussex.
Image: Jay Allen. PM signs Article 50 letter. Crown Copyright CC BY-NC-ND 2.0