Theresa May's gamble to call a snap election in the hope of reinforcing her Conservative party's parliamentary majority and her hand in the imminent start of the UK's Brexit negotiations with the European Union have badly backfired. In a sense, it is the end of the third act of a British political drama that began in 2015 with David Cameron winning a surprise majority of the Conservatives in the general election that year. That unshackled the then prime minister from relying on the Liberal Democrats to govern in a coalition and led to his promise to hold a referendum on Europe. The referendum, the second act of the drama, took place in 2016 and again at everybody's surprise the Remain camp long regarded the clear favorite lost by the slimmest of margins (51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent) to the Leave campaigners. Mr. Cameron resigned and Mrs. May took over as prime minister promising to deliver Brexit, and a hard Brexit at that (“No deal is better than a bad deal”, she has kept repeating). She also said at the time she would not call an early election and let the current term of parliament run to 2020.
A mistaken electoral calculation
In April this year, she changed her mind and called the snap election which, to all intents, she has just lost even though her party is still the single largest but without a clear majority. Her political calculation was that she seemed set to win a landslide victory with the Conservatives expected to gain 20 percentage points on Labor and secure a much larger majority than the 5-seat majority her predecessor David Cameron had secured in 2015. The Labor party seemed in disarray, its left-wing old socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn was both widely criticized inside and outside his party and derided by the Conservatives as “unelectable”, other European countries including France were in the grips of elections with uncertain outcomes, and a stronger majority, she felt, would strengthen the UK's negotiating position with Brussels as well as give her a clear five-year run in 10 Downing Street. It all proved a terrible miscalculation and has led to last night's unexpected election result that mirrors to some degree the recent US presidential election that saw a rank outsider like Donald Trump win against a seasoned and at one staged hot favorite Hillary Clinton. Before analyzing what happens next in what will be the fourth and by no means final act in the current British political drama - some leading commentators are also calling it a mighty mess – a word on what appears to be the new ingredients that have emerged in the British political landscape that have led to the latest surprise upset.
A campaign based on mistrust
In the past, the two main political motivating factors of voters were hope and fear. In 2015, David Cameron won the election and a clear majority with 331 parliamentary seats thanks to a campaign of fear – fear that if Labor won the British economy would be seriously undermined and living standards would drop. In the 2016 a third new ingredient emerged and that was anger. The referendum was about whether the UK should remain part of the EU or leave. In the end, it was also a referendum against the Conservative policies of austerity and spending cuts that had increased the gap between rich and poor in the country. The Conservatives again campaigned using fear of what would happen if the UK left Europe but it was anger this time that prevailed. Mrs. May added a fourth ingredient into the political equation. This was distrust and she did herself no favors by her uninspiring and joyless campaign and her failure to answer detailed questions on her approach to Brexit. In any case, making Brexit the center of her campaign claiming she could deliver the best for Britain and that Mr. Corbyn would be a disaster if he led negotiations in Brussels was a political blunder. There were few votes to be won on this issue given that the country is still almost equally divided on this issue and signs that even many people who voted to Leave now were keen on a softer approach to negotiations concerned about the economic implications of leaving the single market and customs union.
Greater consensus for Labor proposals
While Mrs. May failed to grasp the mood of the country, Mr. Corbyn did in a surprising way by injecting an optimistic note to his campaign and countering the politics of distrust with what he called “Plain speaking and honesty”. His program made little economic sense, according to the influential Institute of Fiscal Studies. But it struck a chord especially among younger voters who were motivated more than expected to vote in this election. Mr. Corbyn has turned his back on the Tony Blair- Gordon Brown style of Labor liberalism and returned to old fashioned Labor working class values. He wants to renationalize the railways and postal service. He wants to increase the minimum wage and increase taxes for the 5 per cent richest people in the UK. He wants to abolish university tuition fees. He wants to spend heavily on infrastructure as well as fund more strongly the health service, education and police forces. Indeed, among Mrs. May 's biggest blunder was a proposal to increase the cost to individuals of old age home care which she was forced to reverse as it made the Conservatives seem once again as a heartless party of austerity, Even the terrorist attacks that marred the last weeks of the campaign did not play in the Conservatives favor as they have traditionally been seen as the party of law and order. The main explanation was that Mrs. May was blamed in part for cutting some 19,000 police jobs when she was for many years Home Secretary. And even more surprising was the failure of the Conservatives to pick up the votes of the UKIP independence party that played such an important role in the European referendum but has since virtually disappeared from the landscape like a bee after delivering its sting. The UKIP vote was equally shared between Conservatives and Labor. So, although Mr. Corbyn and Labor did not win the most seats in the House of Commons it increased its number of seats by 30 and in so doing emerged as the winner.
The risk of a "hung parliament" and the prospect of further elections
In turn, Mrs. May whose Conservative party gained the most seats but short of a majority has emerged as the clear looser. She was hoping for a majority of 50 or more seats. She has ended up with losing her majority and will have to rely on the support of smaller parties, possibly the Democratic Union party of Northern Ireland which has won 10 seats. But it will not be plain sailing. The only positive for the Conservatives has been the sharp losses of the Scottish National Party which dropped around 10 seats. This has reduced the risk of a second referendum on Scottish independence. The Conservatives are furious with Mrs. May. The prime minister has insisted she does not intend to resign. But her position is clearly much weakened and her future, if perhaps not immediately, extremely uncertain. Already commentators are suggesting that the likes of Boris Johnson, the colorful Foreign Secretary popular with Conservative grass roots, or Philip Hammond or Home Secretary Amber Rudd are already in the running for a leadership challenge. Negotiations on Brexit are due to start on June 19 and the current chaos in British politics could well lead to a postponement. The UK's position with a hung parliament also looks much weaker especially against a reinforced Europe following the election of Emmanuel Macron as President of France and the strengthening of ties between France and Germany. All this also points to possible new elections in Britain sooner than later to break the current deadlock of a hung parliament that can only hamper constructive Brexit negotiations. We would then be looking at a fifth act in the current drama of contemporary British politics.