The calling of a ‘snap’ general election by Theresa May on the 18th of April surprised pundits, politicians, the markets and the people alike. This political risk has caused May to lose her majority in parliament with calls for her resignation arising from those both outside and within her party. At the time of calling the general election the Conservatives standing in the polls was strong (but ironically not stable). With the Conservatives around 20 points clear of Labour, May’s claims that divisions in Westminster might hamper her ability to negotiate were the driving force behind her decision to call an election, to strengthen her negotiating hand with Europe.
This was to be the ‘Brexit Election’, the fundamental factor which would drive the British bargaining position and the key to success at the negotiation table. Jeremy Corbyn was branded weak and ill-equipped to be handed the reins of government and this salient argument was capitalised upon heavily by the Conservatives. Following the May 4th Local Election results, and humiliating Labour losses, the polls saw the Conservatives gain significant ground.
The Turning Point
The turning point in this historic election was the launch of both the Labour and Conservative manifestos. No longer was Brexit at the forefront of the political debate with domestic policies taking centre stage. Theresa May instantly came under significant scrutiny for her support of the colloquially named ‘dementia tax’, whilst Corbyn saw great success in promising billions of pounds towards the NHS, social care and providing free higher education. A failure to appear at the election debates, and criticism surrounding May’s decision to cut police numbers, following the Manchester and London terror attacks, was especially damning to the Conservative narrative of ‘strong and stable’ leadership.
As it stands, the Conservatives have lost their overall majority and will likely have to rely on the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for their support in establishing, and maintaining, a government.
What went wrong?
The key behind Theresa May’s fiasco of an election campaign was a failure to consistently draw attention to the Brexit negotiations and their ultimate result. Despite ferocious attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit was not the key issue in this election campaign, leaving the British public wanting more.
Theresa May completely underestimated the ability of Jeremy Corbyn as a leader and campaigner. Corbyn is a veteran of political activism; a man whose whole life has been dedicated to pushing for social change and holding the government to account regardless of party affiliation. Corbyn, through rallies, demonstrations, public appearances and media engagement, could promote his agenda and strike a chord with the key electorate. Despite picking from ‘the magic money tree’, a significant proportion of the British public rendered the Conservative counterarguments of economic disaster as mute to the demands for social change and improvement of their overall living standards.
The success of Labour can be significantly attributed towards the party’s engagement with the young electorate. Turnout for 18-24 year olds, according to the National Union of Students, was as high as 72% in some areas, jumping up 20% from 2015 election. Despite Jeremy Corbyn (68) being some eight years older than Theresa May (60) he was able to communicate a message that a vote for Labour would be a vote for their future.
Although Labour did not win enough support to form a government, they certainly won enough to deny the Conservatives any easy victories.
A Conservative Leadership Crisis
Simply put, the 2017 General Election was a humiliating defeat for Theresa May. An election which was to strengthen May’s hand at the negotiating table only weakened it, eliminating the prospect of a ‘strong and stable’ government.
The calling of an election at this pivotal time in British history was a political risk that was innately personalised towards Theresa May. As an unelected leader, May decided to call the election to strengthen ‘her’ hand and ‘her’ bargaining position in future Brexit negotiations. Consistently, however, Theresa May proved unable to illustrate her ability to lead a ‘strong and stable’ government. Perceived as weak when failing to engage in direct political debate (and unstable when bowing to small pressure groups on Brexit), May did not live up to the promises made. To top it off, May’s personality and background produced a perception of detachment with the general public, and especially the young electorate.
The final results evoked immediate criticism from opposition parties who highlighted May’s inability to maintain a majority as proof of both a lack of public support and a mandate to govern. On the night of the election, as Corbyn called for May’s resignation, the broader Conservative party was seemingly unable to shore up support for their leader. By June 10th, just two days after the election, 2/3 of Tory members were calling for May’s resignation, with two of her key aides, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, leaving Downing Street and the PM with few options to manoeuvre. A leadership challenge might emerge sooner rather than later.
The calling of the June 8th election by Theresa May was a political risk which ultimately resulted in a humiliating disaster. Theresa May failed to win the election as a result of a shift in the political debate away from her position at the Brexit negotiations towards the domestic agenda and ultimately the leadership of the main parties. Now, in an untenable position, Theresa May aims to form a government with the help of the DUP, leaving her with a possible majority of just two MPs. Minority governments and coalitions are especially hard to maintain. While the question of whether Theresa May can successfully hold on to her position as leader of her party is complicated, it currently seems more unlikely than not.