The Cable

Theresa May’s Snap Election Gamble Seems to Have Backfired

She appears to have won, but short of a parliamentary majority.

theresa may woops

When in April British Prime Minister Theresa May went back on her pledge and announced that she would be calling a snap election, she did so because she thought a fresh vote would strengthen her government’s majority — and its post-Brexit hand in dealing with Europe.

But according to first exit polls, it didn’t. At all. May’s Conservatives are forecast to take 314 seats, down from 330 before.

If that pans out, that would mean she will need to govern in concert with another party, as the Tories did not win over half the seats in Parliament — unless it’s Labour that manages to form a coalition government.

Those are just the first exit polls; actual results could differ, as they did in the last general election. Still, what looks like a surprise result undercuts all of May’s calculations about the snap elections. Politico Europe’s Ryan Heath said this will go down as “the most pointless British election.” The Financial Times’ Alexander Gilmour tweeted, “Au revoir Madame May!”

With respect to Brexit negotiations, May said at the time, “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.” And the Labour Party was, at the time, so deeply unpopular that May, who had not been elected as prime minister (she filled in for David Cameron, who resigned when his own gamble on the Brexit referendum failed), felt for sure she could strengthen and secure her own mandate.

But then the campaign happened. Though May framed it as being about giving the United Kingdom support for Brexit, the reality is messier. Her main opponent, Labour, helmed by the controversial Jeremy Corbyn, also supported Brexit in the parliamentary vote ratifying the results of last June’s popular referendum. (The Liberal Democrats were unable to translate their staunch opposition to Brexit into momentum in the general election campaign.)

“This election was billed as the Brexit election. It has not gone as planned. British voters have heard almost nothing from the two main parties on plans to manage Brexit, the single biggest issue facing the United Kingdom over the course of the next Parliament,” Joseph Dobbs, a research fellow with the European Leadership Network explained to Foreign Policy. And so May was left to campaign on domestic issues.

It did not go so well.

The Conservative policy platform called for those who require elder care at the end of their life to pay for it in assets after death. This was promptly branded a “dementia tax.” May then announced a U-turn — there was to be a cap on the amount liable to be paid after death — but May also insisted nothing had changed, which is a far cry from Margaret Thatcher’s “You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning.” May performed badly in interviews with Britain’s dogged press. She didn’t show up for the televised debate between party leaders, even though Corbyn did.

But she did something else, too. She held a snap election even after telling Scotland that it could not hold a second referendum on its own independence from the U.K. as long as Brexit negotiations were ongoing, a perceived irony (or hypocrisy) that emboldened Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party.

In the eyes of the other 27 European Union member states, May showed herself to be less than unflappable. She took time out of preparing for Brexit negotiations, which, though technically already underway, begin in earnest later this month, to say nothing of May’s “disastrous dinner” with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and reports that the prime minister did not understand the reality of Brexit weeks into the campaign.

And so, said Dobbs, “the U.K. ends this campaign where it started, without any real idea what Brexit means and how it will impact” the country. Meanwhile, the continental European press — particularly in Germany — has used the electoral opportunity to take May to task. As the Economist‘s Jeremy Cliffe noted, headlines from this week include “The Brits dream of Empire once more… But it’s just an illusion” and “What’s wrong with Theresa May?” So much for demonstrating strength of resolve to Britain’s opponents.

If exit polls are roughly correct, May will have fewer seats than she started with. She will have lost her majority because of an election that was never supposed to take place. And she will not have proved her country particularly united going into Brexit. If anything, she will have demonstrated the United Kingdom is anything but — in no small part because of elections she herself decided to hold.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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