The British people spoke on Thursday. Except that they weren’t all speaking about the same thing. Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election seven weeks ago was premised on the assumption that she could increase her party’s overall parliamentary majority of twelve, which would insulate her from the criticism of a wing of her own party, if not from critics in the country at large. In her campaign, therefore, she made the election issue one of strengthening her hand in negotiations with the EU, as well as offering “strong and stable leadership.” The leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, by implication was painted as shambling and unskilful, while the subliminal question being asked was, ‘Would you trust this man to negotiate with Europe?’
It would seem that the Conservative Party gurus calculated that since UKIP, the Brexit party, had imploded after the referendum last year, their supporters’ votes would go to the Tories. If this happened, it would give Mrs May a large overall majority, even if she gained no more seats beyond that. Most of the political commentators at the outset went along with this thesis, and there was hardly a voice to be heard which thought otherwise.
As it was, the Prime Minister calculated without the British electorate, various segments of which had other things on their mind apart from Brexit. Many of them clearly thought that the referendum had been held last year and they really didn’t need to vote on it again; instead matters like social care, housing and the National Health Service were at the forefront of their concerns.
In Scotland, where the Scottish Nationalists hold sway, a key issue was the second independence referendum which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants. The election result sent her back to the drawing board, since her party lost 21 seats, some of which went to the Conservatives, who made a comeback north of the border, the only place they did so. That outcome seemed to be a clear indication that the Scots were not ready for another independence referendum at the moment, something which Ms Sturgeon herself acknowledged on Friday.
Elsewhere in the UK Jeremy Corbyn tapped into the thinking of the electorate, while the Labour Manifesto addressed the social questions causing the ordinary man and woman disquiet. Furthermore, Mr Corbyn travelled up and down the country meeting people face to face, and holding any number of meetings small and large. He came across, therefore, as accessible and willing to listen, while addressing the issues which were on people’s minds. Ms May, in contrast, was cold and distant appearing mostly at choreographed formal events.
Her worst mistake, in terms of the campaign, however, was not appearing in the television debates involving the leaders of all the parties contesting. Mr Corbyn didn’t show his face for the first one either, on the grounds there was no point if his leading opponent was not going to be there. By the time the second one rolled around, however, he had thought better of that approach, and did take part. Her absence really did Theresa May damage; if she was afraid to face down the other British party leaders, how could she manage the shark pool of Europe? So much for strong leadership.
Then of course there were the two terrorist attacks which occurred during the campaign, one in Manchester and the other in London. Under normal circumstances a Tory party might have benefited politically from those tragic events since they are very much identified as the law and order party, but on this occasion Mrs May had been Home Secretary when police numbers had been cut by 20,000. She was not helped by a senior police spokesman who said that the nature of terrorist attacks in Britain had changed, and that these acts were mostly being perpetrated by home-grown terrorists. As such, he said, it was important to have enough police to be able to send the ‘bobby’ out on the beat to get to know the community.
Mr Corbyn for his part had an inspired stroke; he deliberately went out to target young people, who are concerned about the minimum wage, student fees, housing and the like. His strategy paid off; in areas of the country where youth numbers were high, young people turned out to vote Labour. Despite the evidence that the Corbyn social message was being given an earnest hearing in areas where the Tories hoped to make gains, they still went on to make their biggest gaffe, which was the inclusion of a particularly unpopular method of meeting social care costs in their manifesto. It caused such an outcry that they were forced to backtrack on it, which made them look not just uncaring, as they did in the first instance, but also incompetent.
This is not to say that there weren’t some areas which did vote on the Brexit issue alone. The strong Labour area of Mansfield, for example, went Conservative, because the electorate didn’t trust Labour’s Brexit commitment. The heartland Labour working class constituencies in the former industrial Midlands particularly, voted Brexit last year, but that notwithstanding, many of them stuck with Labour in this election.
Some parts of London, which overwhelmingly voted to stay in the EU in 2016, may have had Brexit on the mind. The Liberal Democrats, who want a second referendum before Britain leaves the EU, managed to wrench two seats from the Tories, while Labour took four from them. One of them was the well-heeled constituency of Kensington-Chelsea, where many of the residents would hardly spare a thought for the minimum wage or the National Health Service. However, to everyone’s amazement it went Labour, albeit by a very tiny majority. In general, the analysts say, areas of the country which recorded a strong Brexit showing last year voted Conservative, and those with a strong Remain turnout, went Labour.
So now Mrs May is down 13 seats and has lost her overall majority. It was announced yesterday that what is called a confidence and supply deal had been struck with the DUP of Northern Ireland; it is less than a coalition but more than having to negotiate on every Bill which comes before Parliament. Exactly what is in it, no one knows yet, but the DUP might be awkward partners, since they are socially very conservative. In addition, the Westminster government has been attempting to broker an agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP after the collapse of the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. One would have thought that the British government can’t play the good officer role if it is in league with one of the parties involved, but nothing has been said by Westminster on that score.
One thing that can be said is that Mrs May will not be left in No 10 indefinitely, although exactly when the Conservative party will decide to replace her remains to be seen. This is because the EU negotiations are due to start on June 19, and it is possible the party may decide to leave her in place to begin the talks. One must also presume that there is a likelihood the British will be visiting the polls again sooner rather than later if the reading of the Tories is that they could do better on a second appeal to the nation. Much depends, however, on how things evolve both within the country and with Europe.
As for Theresa May herself, her reading of the electorate was no better than that of her predecessor, David Cameron, and it is clear that both she and her party have a lot more listening to do to the voters, so they can adjust their policies accordingly. On this occasion too, the voters defined the issues for themselves, and showed they were not going to be told by the governing politicians what was important. It is a lesson the politicians in this country also need to learn.
A street poster about Theresa May which appeared in the UK read: “Hubris to humiliation.” It is a not unreasonable judgement.