This was not how it was meant to be.
A month and a half ago, Theresa May, the British prime minister, stood confident in front of 10 Downing Street. She had come out to declare the need for a snap election to ensure that Brexit can properly be delivered. “Our opponents believe that because the Government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course.” For this reason, it was imperative to increase the Conservative majority in the House of Commons. “It is with strong conviction,” she declared, “that I say it is necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond.”
Now, today, with her election over, May has lost her majority entirely and has barely held on to her own position. How long ago mid-April must now feel for her.
The election was supposed to be a triumphant coronation, the granting of democratic legitimacy to an unelected prime minister. Gordon Brown had made the mistake of not calling an election when he could still win one; May was determined not to repeat history. The polls, of course, were clear: she would win easily. She would take the Conservative party to win on a scale not seen since the days of Margaret Thatcher, crushing Jeremy Corbyn’s weak Labour party under a 20-point landslide.
A campaign season later, and the following has been proven: Theresa May is no second coming of the Iron Lady. No democratic mandate has been provided. What the election produced, instead, was an ample supply of irony.
First is the irony of how May attempted to centre the election around the topic of her leadership. The prime minister repeated, over and over: she would provide “strong and stable leadership”. She peppered her answers to every question with references to strength and stability. Only she could provide the certainty Britain needs in an uncertain post-Brexit world, she argued. And initially, the public seemed to agree: her personal approval ratings continued to soar. May, buoyed by this, began turning the campaign into an American-style presidential election: references to the Conservative party were quietly dropped, while Tory candidates urged voters to back “Theresa May’s Team”. May was always clear that this was a personality contest, frequently asking voters whether they wanted her or Corbyn negotiating with the EU on their behalf.
The strategy proved a disaster when May became more of a liability than an asset. First voters began to notice that beyond the repetition of platitudes, May did not seem to have many real answers to their questions. Perhaps she could provide strong and stable leadership- but to what ends? And using what means? She had no answers. Then when the Tories unveiled the ends to which May would use her strong and stable leadership skills for, voters balked. Fox hunting, dementia taxes: nothing she desired was what voters were looking for. May, choosing to U-turn on her various unpopular manifesto policies, inadvertently revealed that she may not be as strong and stable as she had claimed. Finally, as May discovered that the longer she was exposed to the public the less they seemed to like her, she attempted to stop making public appearances, cancelling interviews left and right and refusing to attend an election debate. It was easy ammunition for her opponents to declare that this was not the actions of a strong and stable prime minister. And by refusing to give her a majority, the British electorate has effectively hampered any possibility that May could provide that strength and stability.
Second is the irony of her desire for a landslide victory. There is no doubt that the Tories were planning for a massive victory. This would have been beneficial for a number of reasons: it would have given the Tories a strong public mandate for their vision of a hard Brexit. It would have empowered the Government to ignore more rebellious backbenchers, something they found difficult to do when May inherited David Cameron’s tiny majority. It would, once again, prove that May has the strength of leadership to win an election, something she had not yet proven she can do, which should, in theory, cow her negotiating partners in the European Union. It would also send the Labour Party, led by the seemingly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn, firmly into the electoral dustbin. There seemed to be no way that Labour could recover: Corbyn, who the Tories had seemed to successfully firmly brand as a loony far-left terrorist sympathiser who wanted to tax away everyone’s incomes and give up the kingdom’s nuclear weapons, seemed ill-prepared to withstand the upcoming Conservative onslaught.
What a surprise, then, when the election showed Labour increasing both its share of the vote and the number of seats in the Commons. Not only was Corbyn capable of preventing his party’s electoral doom, he was also able to deny May even the narrowest of majorities; he did so by running a strong, hopeful and upbeat campaign in England and Wales. He did, of course, propose policies that did not pass any economic fitness test- but so did the Conservatives, supposedly the party of fiscal discipline. May’s Conservatives were only saved by Scotland, of all places, where the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson had ran a strong campaign to oppose plans for a second independence referendum. There, Davidson had actually managed to, for the first time in decades, take seats for the Tories. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon often spoke of how England was imposing upon Scotland a Tory government – now, with considerable irony, Scotland was imposing upon the rest of the union that very same Tory government that Sturgeon had claimed the Scottish detest.
Third is the irony of the need for a coalition. David Cameron had formed the UK’s first coalition government since the Second World War after failing to win an overall majority in 2010, allying with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron proceeded to decimate the Lib Dems in 2015, allowing him to form a majority Tory government, but he had also accused then Labour leader Ed Milliband of preparing to form a coalition government with the hated Scottish Nationalist Party. This, Cameron declared, would create a “coalition of chaos”. Two years later, May chose to borrow from Cameron’s playbook; she again said that Labour, this time under Corbyn, would have to ally with all the smaller parties to build a coalition government. This, too, would be a coalition of chaos. It didn’t matter that Corbyn vehemently declined he would seek a coalition with the SNPs.
It was probably with a lot of satisfaction when Labour members saw Theresa May’s backroom dealing after the election result became clear. The Tories, without an overall majority, would need a partner: but with whom? The Liberal Democrats, stung by their previous marriage with the Conservatives, had already declared they were ruling out any coalition talks; the SNP were far too progressive to countenance allying with the Tories, and the other smaller parties would not provide the numbers needed to command a majority. This left only the Democratic Unionist Party, northern Ireland’s largest political party. While at the time of writing the details of their deal is not clear, it appears that at the very least the DUP has agreed to a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with May: her Queen’s speech and budget would get their votes, given that she agreed to some of their conditions. May attempted to make this sound like a natural arrangement; after visiting the Queen, she very intently stated the full name of her party: ‘the Conservative and Unionist party’. Her critics, of course, pounced: she was now the one building a coalition of chaos. This minority government would be no stable government.
Fourth and final is the irony of May’s quest for a mandate to pursue her vision for Brexit. May had claimed that her slim majority meant her Brexit negotiations could be easily sabotaged; indeed, tabloid headlines screamed once she declared the need for an election that the time had come to “crush the saboteurs”. It appears that May has been crushed instead. First, May simply does not have any mandate to pursue her idea of what Brexit means. May can also no longer afford to ignore her backbenchers, which include members with views as diverse as a strong preference to still remain in the EU to the hardest of Brexits. Additionally, the EU will now see not a formidable leader, but a prime minister considerably weakened by her own doing.
Indeed, it may be May’s partnership with the DUP that proves to be her undoing. Once again, while at the time of writing the DUP’s conditions for support are still unclear, it is probable that the DUP will demand that May deliver a soft Brexit. This is because Northern Ireland’s economy depends on it still having a porous border with its neighbour down south, the Republic of Ireland. Any arrangement otherwise would be a massive hit. This, of course, is a vision completely out of line with what May and her Brexit secretary David Davis had wanted to pursue: a deal that would take the UK out of the single market, in order to be able to limit immigration. This presents May with a dilemma: a deal that does take the UK out of the single market would be unacceptable to their new DUP kingmakers, while a deal that does not will be unacceptable to much of May’s own party. I wrote in a previous blog post that the election would hand the prime minister a poisoned chalice- the result only makes it doubly so.
May is no Iron Lady, and her quest to prove she is one has instead supplied only disastrous irony.