Prime minister Theresa May has lost her gamble in calling a general election. She was seeking to enhance her authority in upcoming Brexit negotiations with a stronger mandate but instead the Conservatives lost overall control of Parliament. Mrs May’s Tory leadership in a minority government is now in doubt, as is the shape of the Brexit talks due to start in a matter of days. The result leaves Britain with a hung Parliament, only the third since World War II.
For the prime minister, the result is little short of a public humiliation. When Mrs May forced through legislation to enable her to call an early poll seven weeks ago, the Conservatives sat on a huge lead, suggesting a House of Commons majority of more than 100. But young voters and former supporters of the UK Independence Party moved predominantly to Labour, not the Conservatives. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose party lost its only seat, scoffed that Mrs May was “wooden and robotic”.
Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left but affable Opposition leader, achieved what many – including those in his own parliamentary party – thought impossible. He came within sight of the premiership after fighting an energetic campaign. He addressed 90 rallies across the country; in his own words, he was “comfortable in his own skin”. Were it not for the fact that the Conservatives took seats from the Scottish Nationalists, Corbyn might now be prime minister.
By contrast, Mrs May looked uncomfortable, seeming spurning serious debate on core issues in favour of a presidential campaign, with even prominent ministers often in the background. She appeared more authoritarian than authoritative, building her case around self-perceived qualities of leadership, comparing herself favourably with Mr Corbyn.
As Mrs May’s huge early lead evaporated, it seemed that the more people saw of her the less they liked her. Even Tory activists conceded she was brittle and evasive, particularly under questioning from journalists. Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, reviewed all the questions asked on Britain’s main television channels over a week and found Mrs May had only answered half of them.
Matthew Parris, a former Tory MP and now columnist for The Times, says he has met with her often and even dined with her but “still does not know what lies behind ‘the steely gaze of the sphinx of Maidenhead’.” Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister in the David Cameron Coalition government, has suggested her sometimes withdrawn nature is a sign of insecurity and that, as home secretary, she always preferred to seek the counsel of advisers before committing to a decision.
Yet in this campaign, it was a problem with advisers that undermined Mrs May. She has two chiefs-of-staff, Fiona Hill and Nicholas Timothy. Mr Timothy inserted into the Tory manifesto a new policy forcing those owning homes worth more than £100,000 to pay for their home care. Mr Corbyn was quick to label it a ‘tax on dementia’. Mrs May swiftly reversed the policy in an embarrassing U-turn.
One of the other major miscalculations of Mrs May and her party strategists was their belief that the Conservatives would pick up votes from traditional Labour supporters and former UKIP members who backed Brexit in the last year’s referendum. This strategy failed dismally.
Last weekend’s chilling terrorist attack in London led Mrs May to deliver her “enough is enough” speech, promising to “tear up” human rights legislation if it interferes with efforts to deal with Islamic terrorists. Mr Corbyn response was to detail how Mrs May, as home secretary, had reduced police numbers. Her getting “tough on terrorists” line might have had greater resonance had not Britain’s more serious newspapers revealed that intelligence agencies knew of the jihadist activities of all the perpetrators of the Manchester and London attacks prior to them taking place but had not moved to prevent them, perhaps because of resource constraints.
Whether Mrs May remains as prime minister is a matter of speculation. What is clear is that the election result no longer gives her a mandate for a hard Brexit. Whoever leads the negotiations on the British side will have to modify the government’s hard line to date.
It seems likely Britain may now seek to stay in the EU’s single market and customs union. Any agreement reached will have to be thoroughly discussed, debated and voted on in Parliament.
Early indications from the UK stock market were positive, with some hope that Brexit may not mean Brexit after all.
One thing is fairly certain: the Tories will try and live with a hung Parliament, rather than call another general election which Jeremy Corbyn may be expected to win.
Colin Chapman is immediate past president of AIIA NSW. As a former economic correspondent at the BBC and a senior executive at the Financial Times, he spent much time in Brussels covering EU issues and still maintains close connections with policymakers.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.