Theresa May’s Losing Gamble

Theresa May
Theresa May; drawing by James Ferguson

On June 8, British Prime Minister Theresa May learned one of politics’ cruelest lessons: that it is possible to win an election and still lose. Technically speaking, she was the victor, as her Conservative Party won fifty-six more seats in Parliament than its Labour opponents. But May lost her overall majority in the House of Commons and, given where the two parties had started, to say nothing of her expectations and indeed her motives in calling a contest in the first place, this victory tasted like the most bitter defeat.

Nothing about this outcome had been predicted. On April 19, the day after the prime minister dissolved Parliament and triggered an early vote, the international edition of The New York Times captured the instant consensus about the inevitability of a May triumph with its front-page headline, “The Foregone Conclusion of Britain’s Election.” That’s certainly how it seemed. The opinion polls showed May—installed as Conservative Party leader and prime minister in the summer of 2016, after the Brexit referendum had toppled the previous incumbent, David Cameron—crushing her opponents.

The Tories had a twenty-point lead over the Labour Party and May’s personal ratings were in the stratosphere: 61 percent of Britons regarded her as the most capable prime minister, compared to just 23 percent for Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. That 61 percent figure was, incidentally, the highest recorded by the pollsters Ipsos Mori since the company began asking the question back in 1979—the year Margaret Thatcher first entered Downing Street. May’s decision to seek a popular mandate three years ahead of schedule—a decision reached while hiking in Wales with her husband on an Easter vacation—was widely applauded as seizing a rare opportunity to win a Thatcher-style landslide.

At first, political discussion centered only on the size of May’s coming victory. Municipal contests on May 5, in which Labour took a thorough pounding even in its most traditional heartlands, confirmed the imminent wipeout. Labour’s anti-Corbyn camp, including the overwhelming majority of its MPs (172 out of 229), who had voted no confidence in their leader the previous year, began plotting for his post-defeat removal. (Full disclosure: I was one of those who argued that Corbyn was doomed to be unelectable.)

But events did not follow the script. At 10:00 PM on June 8, an exit poll showed that May had not expanded the Conservatives’ slender majority in the House of Commons to fifty, seventy, one hundred, or even 120 seats. On the contrary, she had lost it altogether. Nor had Labour plummeted below two hundred seats in the 650-seat chamber, as once seemed preordained; it had gained thirty more. Through the night, the news only became more mind-boggling, as Labour not only held its own in Wales, the English Midlands, Yorkshire, and the northeast—all places where it had been bracing for losses—but made gains in Tory strongholds. The cathedral city of Canterbury, Tory since it first became…

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