This is not how it was meant to play out!
A Prime Minster with sky-high leadership ratings, when she surprised the nation by calling a snap General Election on Tuesday 18 April.
A leader of the Opposition ridiculed in the media, apparently leading a divided party.
A campaign focused on Theresa May’s “strong and stable” leadership, which was meant to deliver a landslide majority to strengthen her hand during the Brexit negotiations.
And today the Prime Minster finds her authority in tatters, some would say mortally so.
How did it all go so wrong?
Once again, we find ourselves in a situation where the political commentariat and the majority of the polling industry’s predictions have proven to be wrong. Add GE 2017 to the carcasses of GE 2015 and EU Referendum 2016, the result will be picked over for years to come, as analysts scratch their heads on a result they never saw coming, again!
To start with, Jeremy Corybn take a bow. He proved the doubters in his own party wrong. He proved everybody wrong. Over the course of the campaign, he grew and grew in stature and inspired new voters, especially the young, to turn up in huge numbers and vote for Labour. The final national share of the vote – at around 40% – compares with the share achieved in the landslide Labour victory in 2001 under Tony Blair.
In contrast, the Conservative campaign stuttered and stumbled. Too many stage-managed campaign events, too many interviews in which the Prime Minster seemed evasive or not able to answer simple questions in anything but robotic sound-bites, and then the manifesto U-turn on social care and the failure to directly debate Jeremy Corbyn in any of the leadership broadcast debates.
Conservative political strategists might well argue that this analysis is unfair. Theresa May in fact won approx. 42.4% of the national vote, an increase of 5.5% from GE 2015. However, this election was hers to lose, based on a strategy of pitching her leadership directly against Jeremy Corbyn’s, and her vision of Brexit. The electorate rejected these at the ballot box.
What does it mean?
The Conservatives have won the most seats: 318 at the time of writing, short of the 326 seats needed to form a majority Government.
This means Theresa May will attempt to form some form of Minority Government with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland, who gained ten seats in the General Election. Accounting for Sinn Fein not taking their seven seats in Parliament this would give the Prime Minster a 6-7 seat working majority, depending on the Kensington outcome.
What is clear from the mathematics is that this is far from strong and stable. Political uncertainty has now become the norm in the UK.
Most significantly, this undermines the Brexit process – negotiations are scheduled to start with the EU27 on the week of 19th June and it potentially opens up the conversation on what Brexit looks like. The DUP are unlikely to agree to any Brexit deal that puts in place a harder border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. What does this now mean for Theresa May’s desire to the leave the Single Market and Customs Union, as set out in the Lancaster House Speech?
Ultimately, how long can Theresa May continue to govern with such a small majority? This will be the question on everybody’s lips. Will we see a gradual ebbing of her authority vote by vote in Parliament? Also, watch out for Conservative backbenchers being potentially the most difficult political group for the Prime Minister to manage. After this election night, they will feel emboldened and short on loyalty.
I am certain you can already get good odds on a Tory leadership campaign and another General Election within 12 months.
As the new editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, gleefully remarked last night, “she’s probably reflecting that the worst thing she’s done in her life is no longer running through a wheat field”.
To read Cicero Group’s full analysis of the election result, click here.