How is it possible to lose by winning? Prime Minister Theresa May took a gamble with the British electorate and lost it, despite thinking she was on course for winning big. She watched a huge poll lead evaporate. She and her Conservative Party won, but only in the sense of holding the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. Her Tories are short of an absolute majority.
It is a new Tory habit—hubristically calling a poll only to be thwarted by the outcome. Her predecessor David Cameron had done the same over the Brexit referendum; now he is in political oblivion, invisible in this election campaign and largely forgotten. Both Tory leaders now stand accused of an electoral crime that no democratic politician should ever commit—each has taken the voters for granted.
A hung parliament is a disaster for Mrs. May. Some Conservatives are calling for her resignation amid widespread reports of fury among Tory Grandees over the inept campaign. If she falls on her sword over this fiasco hers would be the shortest premiership since Andrew Bonar Law’s 211 days early last century.
A hung parliament is a disaster for Mrs. May.
Formal Brexit negotiations begin in 11 days. Mrs. May was explicit that she wanted a big Conservative majority that she could brandish in the faces of the European Union’s negotiators and, by implication, a full five-year term on Downing Street. The voters have refused to give her that.
A U.K. political party needs 326 seats to form a government, but Mrs. May’s request of the electorate was for far more; the electorate declined to oblige her. After a hastily arranged deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which shares many policy positions with the Tories and is strong on Brexit, Mrs. May dared to delay the monarch’s lunch by going to Buckingham Palace to ask to form a new government, armed with the D.U.P.’s numerical support. Such a deal would give her 329 seats.
Northern Ireland’s nationalist party, Sinn Fein, which won eight constituencies in the North, vowed to maintain its tradition of refusing to take its Westminster seats (a protest of Great Britain’s rule of Northern Ireland), making it slightly easier for Mrs. May to get back to Number 10. Yet her working majority would then be much less than she inherited from the previous election. Her new administration thus begins on life-support and is unlikely to last long.
On return from the palace, Mrs. May went straight from her Jaguar to the podium in the Downing Street sun to announce briefly and defiantly that she would form a government that would “provide certainty.” The Brexit negotiations are to remain on schedule.
Tellingly and pointedly, she referred to the “Conservative and Unionist party,” a clear nod to her new colleagues across the Irish Sea. She remains prime minister and leader of the U.K.’s biggest party, but she has been damaged and diminished by the snap election she called.
Labour has more than recovered from years of infighting to place themselves a hairsbreadth away from power.
How is it possible to win by losing? Labour’s truly remarkable surge from a position of no-hopery just a few weeks ago and leader Jeremy Corbyn’s personal victory, in the face of horrid ad hominem attacks by the Tories and compliant chums in mainstream media, are really the other big stories of this extraordinary election.
Labour has more than recovered from years of infighting to place themselves a hairsbreadth away from power. Some of their victories last night were breathtaking; none more than the win among the constituency of well-heeled Kensington in West London.
On the morning after the election Labour had hopes of forming a minority administration with support from the Scottish Nationalists. This might yet happen. Mr. Corbyn now has the respect that Mrs. May no longer commands.
Who else came out as winners in the aftermath of this snap election? The United Kingdom’s young people do. Reports emerged in the days before the poll that upwards of 2 million people under 25 had registered to vote and on election day itself there were many reports of busy polling stations, especially in the university towns. Think of that number in a U.S. context, pro-rata, and you get to almost 10 million new voter registrations.
Official figures will not emerge for a few days but, anecdotally, most of those new votes went to Mr. Corbyn and Labour. There was more than a passing resemblance, in his campaign appearances, to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, both in form and content. Mr. Corbyn and Labour galvanized the young.
Another comparative loss is that suffered by the Scottish National Party. Its Westminster seats went down from the S.N.P.’s astonishing near sweep in the 2015 election to 35 this time, a loss of 21 seats. Yet the S.N.P. could still find itself in a winning position as it might hold the balance-of-power should Mrs. May fail and Labour try to form a minority government.
The S.N.P. hopes of a second independence referendum are now sharply diminished. The S.N.P.’s losses in Scottish seats were mostly to the Tories, as resurgent in Scotland as they were dropping south of the border. The U.K. Independence Party could be the biggest losers of all. Their most recent leader, Paul Nuttal, did not take long to announce his immediate resignation after his party won not a single seat and saw its share of the overall vote almost vanish. But as poorly as U.K.I.P performed in this election the party has achieved their primary aim—leading Great Britain into Brexit.
The European Union turns out a winner in the election as well. Although senior E.U. officials made clear that a large Tory majority would not frighten them during Brexit talks, their negotiators will feel empowered in the imminent negotiations.
Winners include also the British people, with terrorists firmly cast as losers. If the recent attacks and mass-murders were designed to disrupt Britain’s democratic process, they have entirely failed.
Finally, no British election would feel authentic if we did not have a touch of eccentricity on election night. There is always a race among some of the constituencies to be the first in the four nations to declare their result. The local town or city council is responsible for the count, invariably held in some drafty, echo-ey sports hall.
Several constituencies vie in this side-contest; it provides harmless fun in that dead period after the polls close at 10 p.m., when the TV pundits have little to say and the first handful of declarations might indicate a trend.
This time, neighboring constituencies in England’s northeast, Newcastle and Sunderland, competed for this meaningless, but fun championship. Newcastle won by a matter of minutes. Sunderland, like Mr. Corbyn’s Labour, need not feel too despondent. Almost certainly, we will have to do it all over again in the autumn. Mrs. May’s position is too precarious; she will certainly never contest an election again.
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