The Cable

Let Us Try to Unpack All the Ways the U.K. Election Could Break

It’s not what Theresa May was shooting for.


How’s your day going? Badly? Did your boyfriend leave you? Did your mother guilt trip you? Did you disgrace your political party and yourself in a snap election that you yourself decided to call?

If the latter, you are probably British Prime Minister Theresa May, who by late Thursday was tottering between a fingernail hold on a technical majority in the House of Commons, a mind-bending quest for a coalition government, a close miss that could leave a hung Parliament, or, because at this point, why not, a “national unity” grand coalition government of the sort forced on Britain in the 1930s.

Either way, it’s light years away from the resounding, unifying result she hoped for when she reversed her earlier pledge and courageously took her case to the polls.

David Davis, the U.K. chief of Brexit negotiations, has conceded that the government may have lost its mandate to exit the single European market in favor of limiting free movement of European peoples; in other words, May’s “hard Brexit” may now be off the table.

Official Brexit negotiations are set to start in 11 days. The clock on the two-year negotiations did not stop because May called snap elections; the official negotiation start date was not pushed back because she decided she wanted a stronger mandate.

While Theresa May’s party fights to hold on to its leadership position, the Liberal Democrats — the only of the three traditionally mainstream parties to have steadfastly opposed Brexit — failed to turn that straw into electoral gold. In fact, Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister in the coalition government with David Cameron, the last prime minister to hold a vote he didn’t have to that ended disastrously, lost his seat. (Current Lib Dem leader Tim Farron managed to keep his seat.)

It is perhaps worth noting that the Scottish Nationalist Party, which seemed emboldened by the hypocrisy of May holding a snap election while denying them a second crack at an independence referendum, did not translate that nationalist rage into votes, and indeed lost seats. Also, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) appeared to secure zero seats. Its former leader, Nigel Farage — whose Brexiteering arguably got Britain into this mess in the first place — said himself that it appeared UKIP was inconsequential in this election.

Though Labour probably did not, in the end, win the day, and though far-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seems still unlikely to become the next prime minister, the reality remains that Labour put in a far stronger showing than May expected when she called for elections in mid-April. And, far from demonstrating herself to be strong and stable, and the country united, she has revealed herself to the United Kingdom, and to Europe, to be weak and wobbly, and the national mood for a hard Brexit a lot weaker than it looked yesterday.


Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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