The UK election result emphatically confirmed the sense that the political class is out of touch with popular sentiment.
To say that the election result this morning was closer than expected is a dramatic understatement: The Conservative party ended up with a vote share just 2 percentage points higher than Labour, having begun the campaign with a 24 point lead in the opinion polls. With 318 seats in a 650 seat parliament (Labour hold 261), Theresa May’s party were forced to strike a deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which holds 10 seats, in order to secure a majority.
So why did Theresa May do so much worse than expected? There are at least four broad causes:
- Leadership Theresa May called the election as a referendum on her “strong and stable leadership”, but the campaign seriously damaged these claims. She sidelined her cabinet in writing the party’s manifesto, then was forced into an embarrassing U-turn when her proposed charges on elderly social care proved predictably unpopular. Her refusal to appear in head-to-head debate further damaged her credentials.
- Austerity Labour succeeded in re-directing some of the blame for strained public services away from migrants and Brussels and towards government austerity policies which have starved services of badly needed funding. It was striking that the public’s response to terrorist attacks focussed more on the effect of funding cuts to police and MI5 than on tough legislation.
- Brexit Many people see in this result the ‘revenge of the 48%’ who voted Remain, and who have been ignored by the political class since last June. This appears to be supported by a north-south divide in the results.
- A new social movement Jeremy Corbyn, adopting Bernie Sanders-style campaign tactics, seems to have managed to mobilise young people (there are reports of a 72% turnout of 18-24 year olds – the highest level since 1964) and left-wingers who were disaffected with New Labour.
Podcast: Winners & Losers in the UK election
Winners and losers
The biggest losers include:
- Theresa May This is a personal defeat for her and shatters her authority in the party and the country. Conservatives like George Osborne and Anna Soubry have been questioning her position.
- Moderate Labour MPs The soft bigotry of low expectations has meant that Jeremy Corbyn’s election defeat appears like a triumph. This puts to bed any hope of challenging him.
- Scottish Nationalists They have lost over 20 seats in Scotland, and are now facing a charismatic conservative leader in Ruth Davidson who has declared that the idea of a second independence referendum is now dead.
The winners are:
- Any group of MPs who want to hold the government hostage If there is a minority Conservative government supported by the DUP it will have to rely on a tiny majority that could disappear at any moment. This means that moderate Tories like Phillip Hammond will be empowered – but so could Tory Eurosceptics.
- The DUP The largest party in the devolved Northern Ireland assembly had its best-ever Westminster performance, becoming the fifth largest party in the House of Commons and making a deal with the Conservatives which will give it significant influence. The party was pro-Brexit last year but supports a softer version with a frictionless border with the Republic of Ireland. Their hardline social conservative values (seen as anti-abortion, LGBT rights and climate action) will make this a controversial alliance.
- Jeremy Corbyn His grip on the Labour Party has been cemented. There will be a temptation now for the rest of the party to rally behind him. It could also turn key Labour front-benchers like Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer into important figures.
What now for Brexit?
There are huge implications for the Brexit negotiations as there is no longer a majority in parliament for any vision of Brexit. Many pundits – including former finance minister George Osborne – say that this means the end of ‘hard Brexit’, and even the Brexit minister David Davis seemed to concede in the early hours of the morning that there must be a rethink. However, it is not clear that there will be a majority for a softer Brexit either: there are more hardcore eurosceptics than hardcore remainers in the conservative party.
More broadly, there are immediate questions about Theresa May’s future. Ultimately it seems likely that there will be another General Election soon.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.