Theresa May’s decision to call a snap General Election will be remembered as one of the most poorly judged gambles in British political history. She called the election to strengthen her negotiating hand, in Brussels and in the House of Commons, to give her a clear mandate to deliver ‘her’ Brexit. She began the campaign around 20% ahead in the polls, with some suggesting she could win a 100 seat majority. She surely could not have comprehended at the time that the decision would backfire quite so badly and she would lose her majority.
Broadly speaking there are three reasons why she failed to retain her majority. Firstly in many constituencies, which had a high proportion of people voting to ‘remain’ in the EU Referendum, particularly in and around London and in the South, the Conservatives lost a lot of votes, and subsequently several seats.
Secondly, the Labour party overwhelmingly had the support of young people (as the graphic below indicates), and turnout among young people was higher than it had been for decades. This is likely to have been because the vast majority of young people voted to stay in the EU, but as turnout was so low in 2016, it felt to many like a vote taken against their wishes.
Thirdly, the Conservative campaign was appalling. The messaging was confused, beginning as a Presidential crusade solely around May to deliver Brexit, shifting midway to some form of ‘pioneering social Conservatism’ few in the party were united behind, ending in the old favourite — ‘project fear’, putting the focus on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived weaknesses. But with a number of uninspiring and unpopular policies in their manifesto, the Conservatives lost momentum. They made the same mistake the unsuccessful Remain, and Hilary Clinton Campaigns made last year: no positive message, campaigning on the status quo, and suggesting that the main reason to vote for them was that the alternative was worse. Jeremy Corbyn however seemed to tap into the fact that much of the population has become weary with austerity and craved something more optimistic. He was the winner who lost the election, having performed better than many of his critics thought he ever could. Having been scoffed at by many prior to the election, polling suggests his popularity is now significantly higher than the Prime Minister’s.
The Government’s deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) means they have just enough MPs to pass key legislation, such as the Queen’s Speech, Budgets and primary Brexit legislation. The majority is so small though that losing the support of the DUP or even just a handful of backbench MPs means the Government will become incapable of passing key legislation. This opens the possibility of a motion of no confidence being called. Furthermore the fact that it took two and a half weeks to finalise this deal, suggests that it was by no means a simple process; the threat of another General Election looms over Parliament.
And what of Brexit? The most significant economic and constitutional reform in the last 70 years? Again, more uncertainty. Theresa May is arguing that 80% of the public voted for Brexit supporting parties, but that overlooks the fact that there is still a huge amount of division about the type of Brexit the UK should be going for. There is a mammoth amount of legislative work needed in preparation for Brexit which will only go through if consensuses can be reached, but these are deeply divisive issues.
In short, Theresa May has taken an already precarious situation and magnified it by calling an election that was not entirely necessary. Her own position as Prime Minister is vulnerable, and according to sources from within her own party, she will likely be gone before the next election if not sooner (the threat of even more chaos is arguably the only reason she hasn’t been ousted already). In Parliament, the Conservatives will have to govern in a consensual manner to pass any legislation. In Europe Brexit negotiations will go on, constantly undermined by the fact that the Government has the thinnest of democratic mandates.
For now though she will remain at the table, delicately assembling her house of cards made up of a minority Government, divisive and complex Brexit negotiations, and a shattered reputation; all ready to topple at any moment.
George McGregor, Managing Partner of Interel UK and Group Head of Public Affairs