That Time Theresa May Forgot That Elections Come With Opponents

The prime minister saw an election as a simple step on her Brexit checklist. Turns out not everyone felt the same way.


Like war, elections are not exercises in project management.

Yet Prime Minister Theresa May approached last night’s general election as if it were — just one more sequential step on her Brexit planning timeline, something to neatly check off between the formal Article 50 notification to leave the European Union in March, and the start of negotiations with the EU later this June. This mechanistic approach, in turn, translated into a tedious and robotic campaign, which combined a monomaniacal focus on “strong and stable leadership” with an effort to build a bizarre personality cult around May, to the point where Tory literature barely mentioned the Conservative Party.

This left the Tories with no positive message, and when a live Labour enemy showed up, May’s script fell apart. If current projections regarding the one still undeclared seat are right, this morning finds the Conservatives with 319 seats in Parliament (out of 650): 11 fewer than before, and short of an overall majority of 326. Labour, by contrast, picked up 29 additional seats, and while still behind on 261, boosted its share of the vote by more than any party since 1945. Now twice in two years, a Conservative prime minister who promised stability has delivered chaos.

The biggest hole in the Tory battle plan should have been obvious: Whether or not one thinks Brexit is a good idea, it is plainly not about stability, or continuity. It’s potentially the most radical change in U.K. domestic and foreign policy in half a century, a step that will change the daily lives of everyone in this country and that of their children.

May was consistently caught between these two realities, backing Brexit, but refusing to commit to its potential for upheaval, good or bad. And when pushed, the woman who sought to project strength and stability proved to be a rather spineless politician, who meekly told people what they wanted to hear. Business heard that there would be no sharp break with the vital EU single market; her base heard that she would be a “difficult woman” who would not simply accept the EU’s terms to stay in that market (which would involve a relationship like Norway’s, in which the U.K. accepts many EU rules). In the end, her genuine attitude to Brexit remained opaque, and she sounded evasive and nervous when questioned on this most fundamental point.

The other major Tory mistake in this election was to overlook the generational divide that now defines British politics. Today, the 18-25 and 65+ age groups, respectively, form the key Labour or Conservative constituencies. (Socioeconomic class, however, appears from the same data set to show roughly the same spread across both parties). The Tory dependence on older voters explains why May had to U-turn on her policy to have them pay more for social care, which was received with outrage, even if it made fiscal sense. This shift on a major manifesto commitment blew up her strong and stable image, upon which her campaign was founded.

But of course, credit where credit is due. Jeremy Corbyn, who has been much maligned over the last two years now looks like he will end up outliving two Conservative prime ministers. His biggest strength, in contrast to May, is his sincerity, which was even recognized during the campaign by the likes of Nigel Farage. Unlike May, people trust that he means what he says, even if they disagree with him. His biggest weaknesses are his own hard-left political views, which are well outside of the mainstream. But that problem was mitigated by Labour’s manifesto, which reflected the attitude of the majority of Labour MPs, and was far closer to the center than Corbyn’s own views. It also didn’t hurt that many seem to have voted for Labour as a protest against an arrogant Tory campaign that took victory, and by implication the British people, for granted.

So what now?

We have a hung Parliament in which no party has the necessary 326 majority to form a government by itself. The last time this occurred was in 2010, leading to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition with a majority of 36. Today, however, the most likely outcome is that the Tories form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, which adds their 10 seats to the 319 Tory seats to give a wafer-thin majority of only 3.

That outcome is a recipe for unstable government. Even beyond obvious frictions over the terms of access to the EU single market, the Brexit deal as a whole requires agreement on a range of issues, from the customs union (which is distinct from the single market) to a “Great Repeal Bill” which seeks to convert all EU law to U.K. law, while leaving out unwanted parts. The customs union will be very thorny with the DUP, who do not want a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland; there is no realistic way to keep the border open without effectively accepting all the EU’s terms, as the Irish-Northern Irish border is soon due to become an EU external border. Likewise, the Great Repeal Bill deals with a whole range of contentious issues that will be very hard to get through if the government cannot afford to lose even three votes. In short, do not be surprised if we see new elections within a year.

May herself has refused to resign, and she could stumble on for a while for want of an alternative if the hard Brexiteers stand behind her. But her authority has taken a mighty blow, and having called this election in part to get out of the grip of the right wing of her own party, she now finds herself hostage to them.

What about Brexit, the most important issue in the country today? One argument says that a so-called soft Brexit, in which the U.K. economy stays plugged into the EU single market, is now more likely, given that was what the Labour party effectively campaigned for, and they now have more influence in Parliament.

But this argument is problematic. For with such a thin majority, the hard Brexiteers can now without difficulty frustrate any government, whether led by May or not, that does not take a hard line on EU negotiations. In my view, the result actually makes an accident, in which the U.K. crashes out the EU without a deal, more likely. (The hard Brexiteers will tell you that the EU needs a deal as much as the U.K., and so the U.K. has the leverage to get a deal on London’s terms that has all the benefits of the single market without any of the burdens. Ignore them. That is pure fantasy).

If there is a glimmer of stability that has emerged from this election it is that of the United Kingdom itself. The Scottish National Party did badly, losing 21 MPs, including their leader in Westminster, Angus Robertson. The makes the case for a second Scottish independence referendum recede into the distance, for now.

Theresa May has only herself to blame for this mess. She called for battle, but forgot about the enemy. Her side have just about won the field, but at far too high a cost. Several members of her Cabinet lost their seats fighting for her, and far from cauterizing the wounds of the Brexit referendum, her strategy has only increased the bad blood all round that has flowed from that vile, divisive experience.

Two weeks ago, when the Tories still expected to come out of this with a massive new majority, Theresa May attacked Jeremy Corbyn as being “naked and alone” — as if he were leading Labour as one might do a nudist colony, who see nothing ridiculous about themselves. But as fate would have it, as a nervous peace descends on the battlefield, like a medieval knight thrown from her horse, May finds herself stripped of her armor, naked, alone, and possibly left for dead.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.