Theresa May’s election gamble backfires – June 2017

The newspaper headlines said it all on the morning after the 2017 UK election.

Prime Minister Theresa May lost 13 seats and in the coming months possibly her own job.
She was forced to lose her two long-time key advisers who designed the Conservative election manifesto, ran her office and in effect her management of the government for the past year, leaving her even more vulnerable to pressures inside her party.

Her Conservative party won the largest number of seats in Parliament – 318 – but lost its Parliamentary majority. So she had the opportunity to form a new government but faced anger and opposition inside her own party and minimal likelihood of much support from outside it.

The result raised questions not only about Mrs. May’s own future but also about the stability of the UK government, its ability to negotiate Brexit, and its very competence to govern. If her new Conservative government failed to work then it was possible that the leader of the next largest party, Jeremy Corbyn of Labour, would be asked to form a government.

A number of Labour policies have been echoed by nearly all the other opposition parties but even if all of their MPs joined an alliance they would still not have an overall majority. No single party in Parliament had an overall majority – more seats than all other parties combined – quaintly called in the UK a “hung Parliament”. In many other countries it is simply known as a minority government which can often govern for significant amounts of time with or without formal coalitions.

Many commentators were expecting another election long before the current statutory 5 years.

For the moment Mrs. May said she will work with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which won 10 seats in the UK Parliament.
Most observers do not expect this to work for long – the DUP is a socially conservative party with positions on abortion, gay rights and climate change that are inconsistent with UK law, has close historical ties to the Protestant community, and is a key partner in the Northern Ireland peace agreement in which the UK government is supposed to be a neutral arbiter.

When Mrs. May called the surprise election for June 8, she claimed she needed the support of the country in her negotiations for British exit from the European Union. 
There was little discussion of Brexit during the 7-week campaign and no more detail on her plans for negotiation.

Throughout the campaign she constantly repeated the mantra that voting for her meant “strong and stable” government.
Halfway through the campaign she was already being mocked instead for being “weak and wobbly” – most especially when she reversed her manifesto position on social care for the elderly and later for refusing to debate other party leaders. 

When she called the election, all four opposition parties with seats in Parliament – Labour, the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Green party – accused her of opportunism, trying to take advantage of a massive lead in public opinion polls despite her repeated previous statements that she would not call an election before the 5-year fixed term ran out in 2020.

There were also suggestions of her trying to avoid political damage from possible criminal charges over Conservative election expenses in 2015 and 2014, and her need to resolve long running struggles inside her own Conservative party between so-called moderates and hardliners on Brexit and a number of other social and political issues.

Many observers and commentators echoed those points including the AEJ-UK’s own recent guest Jim O’Neill, former Conservative Treasury minister and former chief economist of Goldman Sachs who coined the term BRICs.

Mrs. May had a massive lead of more than 20 points in public opinion polls when the election was called and most politicians of all parties and most mainstream journalists and commentators expected her to win with the only question being the size of her landslide.

However Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn outperformed all expectations with an increasingly popular campaign, clever strategy and tactics particularly targeting young voters, and a manifesto that turned out to have broad appeal despite being the most left-wing in decades, calling for higher taxes on the rich and re-nationalisation of the railways, the post office and utility companies.

The campaign cut the polling lead to a few points by voting day and won Labour 30 more seats – their biggest gain in 20 years – and about 40 per cent of the vote, more than Tony Blair won in 2005 and just over half a million votes less than Blair’s 1997 landslide.

It might have further secured his position as party leader and supported his team’s desire to reposition the Labour party further left of the political centre.
But it was not clear then if it changed either the doubts or opposition of many of his MPs who tried to distance themselves from the leader during the election campaign and continued trying to undermine him.

The Liberal Democrats campaigned largely for a second referendum on Brexit trying to target voters who wanted to stay in the EU – winning 4 more seats but seeing their vote share go down 0.5% to 7.4% of total votes.

And the SNP lost 21 of the 56 seats they won in a near sweep in 2015 as both Labour and Conservatives positioned themselves to oppose any second referendum on Scottish independence.

Ultimately this election re-opened major splits in the Conservatives, failed to resolve splits in the Labour party, delayed any direct resolution of Scottish independence, and threw the course of Brexit into serious doubt.

Standings after the election in the 650-seat UK Parliament were:
Conservatives 318
Labour 262
Scottish National Party 35
Liberal Democrats 12
Democratic Unionist Party (Northern Ireland) 10
Sinn Fein  (Northern Ireland) 7
Plaid Cymru (Wales) 4
Green Party 1
Other 1

Newspaper headlines
PM drops two key advisers
Running Theresa May
PM faces anger and opposition inside her own party
PM to work with Northern Ireland’s DUP
The Democratic Unionist Party
Theresa May calls surprise election
PM says she needs support for Brexit
PM mocked over “strong and stable”
Election call reaction
Election opportunistic
Public opinion polls
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn outperforms
Labour wins more than Tony Blair won in 2005