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 a parliamentary seat more than 150 years ago, turned Labour. Eventually, even Kensington—a byword for London wealth, where the average home is valued at $1.8 million—fell to Labour. The Tories were still the largest party in the House of Commons, but it was small consolation. May had asked the voters for a mandate, and they had spurned her.
How had a woman hailed as the second Iron Lady been humbled by a man who had served thirty-odd years as an obscure backbencher and dogged campaigner for lost causes, long beached on the fringes of the English left? More importantly, could this inconclusive result, which leaves May in office but not in power, alter the course of Brexit, perhaps even derailing Britain’s exit from the European Union altogether?
Among the many tenets of received British political wisdom that were upended on June 8, one of the first to tumble was the notion that campaigns seldom matter. By British standards, this was a long campaign (seven weeks, which, to American ears, will sound mercifully brief). Some can be started and finished in twenty-one days. And they almost never change the weather. For all the sound and fury, voters have tended to do on election day what they had planned to do before the starting gun was fired. This, too, was another reason to assume that May would cruise to victory. She began the race miles ahead and, if precedent was any guide, she would end it in the same place.
But this time, the campaign mattered. As always, it turned on two questions: the competing strengths of the main party leaders and their respective manifestos, or proposed platforms for government. On both counts, the Conservatives were found lamentably, and unexpectedly, wanting.
May decided that she was her party’s chief asset and set about traveling around the country in a “battlebus”—a quaint function of Britain’s geographic compactness, there being limited need for planes—emblazoned with her own name rather than that of the Conservatives. She sidelined her cabinet colleagues and made herself the sole speaker in her cause. The trouble was, she was appallingly bad at it. As a candidate, she made Hillary Clinton look like Bill.
A faltering speaking style was coupled with an awkward facial tic: her expression tends to default to a grimace that only worsened under pressure. She repeated her slogans ad nauseam, constantly telling voters that the country needed “strong and stable leadership,” which only she could provide; that she wanted a large mandate to strengthen her hand in upcoming Brexit negotiations with the remaining twenty-seven EU member states that Britain is about to leave behind; and that the alternative was a “coalition of chaos” formed by the hapless Corbyn in alliance with the UK’s smaller parties.
These messages had doubtless tested well in focus groups. But some reverse alchemy occurred when May parroted them endlessly and in response to any question, usually before small groups of handpicked supporters in hermetically sealed rooms, watched by a frustrated press corps. It revealed her as unable to think on her feet, and therefore seemingly lacking any deeper, nobler motivation for seeking the support of a public already wearied by a referendum battle just a year earlier and now forced to take part in an election she had imposed.
Rapidly, she was mocked as the Maybot, her repetitions cut together and circulated virally via social media. Hers was a style of political communication perfected in the Tony Blair era that began in the 1990s, in which candidates were drilled in “message discipline,” repeating the same phrase over and over to ensure the key words made it onto the evening news. It worked then. But in the era of Facebook and Twitter, it exposed her to ridicule.
Corbyn was the polar opposite. By conventional standards, his stump speech hardly amounted to rousing oratory. Often rambling and with cadences that resolve in bathos, the sixty-eight-year-old Labour leader looks unspun, a survivor of the pre-Blair era when politics meant long speeches at public meetings rather than soundbites for TV. No longer scruffy—his handlers gave him a haircut, trimmed his beard, and put him in dark blue suits long ago—he nevertheless exudes a kind of retro authenticity. He can’t deliver a barnstorming speech the way Bernie Sanders can, but the two men share the earnest sincerity of the longtime outsider, the veteran campaigner for whom career advancement was never the driving purpose.
Corbyn benefited too from the equal-time rules that bind the broadcast networks during campaign season. Suddenly, he was granted access to TV shows that had previously depicted him only in snatched news reports, often focusing on his own colleagues’ low opinion of him. On the sofa on daytime TV, he revealed himself to be affable and engaging, chatting about his fondness for growing vegetables, rather than the firebreathing Marxist that the pro-Tory papers had established in the public mind. He was able to sweep aside lingering questions about his past associations with authoritarian regimes from Caracas to Tehran—or terrorist groups from Hamas to the Irish Republican Army—as so much ancient history. What were, in fact, expressions of solidarity on his part he recast as discreet efforts at peacemaking.
With nothing to lose, Corbyn turned up for various TV interviews or debates with the leaders of smaller parties that May had chosen to duck. She calculated that she would be granting him too much status if she debated him one-on-one, a view taken by several prime ministerial incumbents before her. But that allowed him to make his case. Whatever you thought of his politics, he was clearly a person comfortable in his own skin. The same could not be said of her.
It was on policy, however, that the Tories erred most egregiously. May’s manifesto included a proposal to fund all “social care” of the elderly—regardless of whether you were looked after in your own home or in a residential center—by posthumously taxing your home, down to your last $125,000. Among policy wonks, it seemed reasonable enough: it made sense to apply the same funding rules, no matter where you were being cared for. But it rattled a core component of the Tory base: the home-owning elderly. Under Britain’s National Health Service, they knew the government would meet their medical costs if they had cancer. Yet now they were being told they’d have to pay up if they succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Instantly, May’s move was dubbed the “dementia tax.”
The polling response was swift and disastrous. May reversed the policy within four days of its announcement, undermining her claim to be “strong and stable.” Worse, she pretended that “nothing has changed.” That made her look idiotic. She was now lampooned as “weak and wobbly,” selling a manifesto that nobody wanted, whose central proposal had been ditched.
Again, the contrast with Labour was sharp. Corbyn’s program was packed full of treats for almost every segment of the electorate. The elderly were promised they’d keep every cash benefit they currently enjoyed, including those threatened by the Tories. Industries whose privatization in recent decades had become increasingly unpopular, most notably the railways, would return to public ownership. Most striking of all, the Labour manifesto promised to scrap university tuition fees, making higher education free of charge for everyone, just like it was in Corbyn’s day.
These and other proposals struck a chord in a public tired of post-crash austerity and fed up with stagnant wages, underfunded public services, and unaffordable homes. The anti-austerity message hit home to such an extent that it may well have enabled the Labour campaign to stay on track despite two terror attacks in two weeks: the first on the Manchester Arena, the second on London Bridge. Ordinarily, a shift in focus onto national security would have favored the Conservatives, as they eagerly reminded voters of Corbyn’s history of friendly contact with groups associated with terrorism. But Labour could hit back, noting that May, as home secretary from 2010 to 2016, had presided over cuts in police numbers in the name of balancing the books. In a powerful line, Corbyn argued that safety could not be bought “on the cheap.”
Post-election analyses attributed much of Labour’s success to the fact that younger voters in particular were receptive to Corbyn’s message, and especially his promise of a free college education. Corbyn’s rallies around the country, bringing out eight thousand in the relatively small city of Gateshead, for example, were filled by young devotees, in scenes that prompted ready parallels with the “Feel the Bern” days of the Sanders primary campaign. Support for Corbyn became a staple on social media, helped along by artists and musicians, including luminaries of grime, a hard-edged British strain of rap. #Grime4Corbyn spread via Snapchat and Instagram the case for registering to vote and, once you had, for voting Labour.
But while the notion of Generation Corbyn is an appealing one, it’s far from the whole story. For one thing, Labour led among all those under forty-five, not just the youngest. A close reading of voting patterns also shows that where Labour surged most was in areas with high concentrations of graduates and an ethnically diverse population. Strikingly, according to Robert Ford, a political scientist at the University of Manchester, Labour advanced furthest in seats “with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich.” Meanwhile, the “Conservatives, long the party of capital…made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales.” This suggests a British political rift along class and education lines with parallels to the Clinton/Trump divide in the US.
Labour was able to attract another crucial group of voters too. It had long been assumed that those who had voted for the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party (UKIP), formerly led by Donald Trump’s pal and regular Fox talking head Nigel Farage, would desert the party this time: after all, its work was done. It was further assumed that those voters would flock en bloc to May, who had promised to implement their will and pursue Brexit, even in its hardest form—a Brexit that would see Britain depart not just the EU but also its single market and customs union. The municipal elections on May 5 suggested that May had succeeded in making the UKIP vote hers.
But analysis of the June 8 results shows a surprisingly large slice of UKIP voters breaking for Labour. One reading is that these were people who were not, after all, obsessed with Europe, but rather looking to cast a vote against the system itself—a system that had seen wages flatline for years, while depriving cherished public services, from schools and hospitals to local parks and libraries, of cash. Farage had once seemed an apt vehicle for that protest vote; now it was the anti-establishment Corbyn.
The other explanation is that Labour benefited from its own tortured opacity on Brexit. Torn between those who voted Leave in 2016, often white working-class voters in post-industrial towns, and its Remainers, often city-dwelling college graduates, the party had chosen to sit on the fence. Officially, it said it was committed to implementing Brexit, but with a hint of flexibility to reassure Remainers that Labour provided an alternative to May’s headlong rush for the EU exit. While yet another May slogan insisted “no deal was better than a bad deal,” Labour vowed that walking away from the EU without an agreement was not an option.
As for immigration, the decisive issue in the 2016 Brexit referendum, Corbyn said that the numbers of incoming foreigners would “probably” come down once the UK was no longer bound to comply with the EU right of free movement for its citizens; but he also signaled that protecting British jobs mattered more to him than curbing migration. That too was a contrast with May.
In government, such ambiguity would unravel fast. But in an election campaign, it worked like a charm, allowing Corbyn to recruit both hard-up, anti-immigration Leavers in Hull and well-heeled, cosmopolitan Remainers in Kensington, all at the same time. (Indeed, Labour’s vote share increased by twelve points in the strongest Remain voting areas.) The result is that, in an era dominated elsewhere by populist lurches to the right, Corbyn’s brand of left populism has become a potent force in British politics.
So what now? Once the election was done, May set about forming a government despite finding her party several votes shy of an overall majority. She turned for help to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the hard-line voice of Protestantism that dominates the still-sectarian politics of Northern Ireland. (One wit describes the party as “the political wing of the seventeenth century.”) The Democratic Unionists have ten seats in the Commons, which gets May just over the line. But they are unbending in their opposition to abortion and LGBT rights, especially same-sex marriage, which has unnerved those Conservatives who backed Cameron’s original project of modernizing their party and detoxifying its brand in the eyes of urban and suburban Britons. One can only imagine how easy it will be for Corbyn to use the Tory alliance with the DUP to galvanize his youth army in any future election. At the very least, Labour will be able to note the irony that it is now May, not Corbyn, who will be presiding over a “coalition of chaos.”
The overriding issue will, of course, be Brexit. The DUP supports it, but with reservations. It wants a “frictionless border” between the Irish Republic, which will remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which will be outside it—a goal that surely can only be realized if the UK leaves the EU but remains in the single market. This is the so-called “Norway model,” which notably requires Oslo to pay hefty dues to the EU in return for full access to the single market, but with no say over the market’s rules. More broadly, May no longer has the numbers in Parliament for a “hard Brexit”: there are enough Remainer rebels on her own side to deny her that option. If Corbyn were to demand a deal that keeps Britain in the single market—not his stance now—there would be plenty of Tories ready to side with him against her.
The larger problem for May is that her authority is shot. Her fellow Conservatives are allowing her to cling on in 10 Downing Street chiefly because none of them fancies taking on a suddenly strengthened Jeremy Corbyn just yet or handling the poisoned chalice that is Brexit. But it’s transparently clear that May is living on borrowed time. She will face her European counterparts—including, in Emmanuel Macron, a French president who is set to be buttressed by an enormous parliamentary majority—across the negotiating table as a diminished figure. (She already looked that way when she made her first post-election foreign trip on June 13, standing alongside Macron at a Paris meeting, flustered as her papers blew off her lectern.) They will know that she is, as one former colleague puts it, a “dead woman walking.”
European leaders may prefer to give the British prime minister nothing, waiting until she is replaced, either by a parliamentary coup administered by her own party or by Corbyn in yet another election, which could come as soon as this autumn or next spring. Not that the Tories are in any hurry to subject themselves to the voters again. Indeed, all that binds the Conservatives to May now is their reluctance to face Corbyn and his improbable alliance at the ballot box. Of her, the Tories have lost all fear. She is that most enfeebled of figures: the gambler who had everything and threw it away.
—June 15, 2017