Theresa May's election gamble: How 'anger over Brexit' hurt Britain's PM

“Theresa On the Ropes” was just one of the headlines Brits woke up to this morning, as Prime Minister Theresa May lost her gamble and working majority at Westminster after calling a snap election that delivered a hung Parliament.

Her decision to go the polls three years early is being called one of the biggest missteps in recent political history, with May’s critics accusing her of putting partisan political greed ahead of the good of the country. 

As the results flowed in from yesterday’s vote, May’s Conservatives were predicted to win 318 seats, short of the 326 needed for an outright majority and down by 13. The Opposition Labour Party was up by 29 seats for a total of 261.

“This is a remarkable election result,” said political science lecturer Tim Travers of the London School of Economics. “I mean, the U.K. is someway getting used to remarkable results. This tells us the electorate is quite volatile.”

“I am quite frankly amazed,” said Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University. ”I was pretty convinced that Theresa May and the Conservative Party would be returned with a slightly increased if not much more comfortable majority.”

‘There are results in London that only make sense if you add a remain revenge vote into it in effect.’- Tim Travers, London School of Economics

There have already been calls for May to step down, both from inside and outside her party. But speaking at her Maidenhead constituency as results were coming in, she seemed to indicate she will stay on.

“At this time more than anything else this country needs a period of stability,” she said after being returned as MP.  

“And if as the indications have shown, if this is correct that the Conservative Party has won the most seats and probably the most votes, then it will be incumbent on us to ensure that we have that period of stability, and that is exactly what we will do.”

‘Anger over Brexit’

Britain is due to begin exit negotiations with the European Union in just a little over a week. When May called the election, she said it was so that she could enter those negotiations with a strong mandate.

Just what mandate she can take from this election result remains unclear, with her party now in turmoil. There is already debate over whether May should have pushed for a so-called “hard Brexit,” insisting that no deal was better than a bad deal.

Internal discussions will be tortured, a continuation of the drama between pro and anti-EU forces within the Conservative Party that led to the referendum in the first place.

Britain voted in a narrow result last June to leave the European Union in a national referendum, splitting the country and leaving many with a bitter aftertaste.

Most analysts agree that the general election results in some parts of the country, particularly in its urban centres, reflect what’s being called the “revenge of the remain voters.”

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Ballot boxes are emptied to be counted for the general election, at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow. (Andrew Milligan/PA/Associated Press)

That sector of the electorate has also been uneasy seeing the government out of step with European partners such as France and Germany, which are seen as taking a harder line with the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump on issues such as climate change.

“There are results in London that only make sense if you add a remain revenge vote into it in effect,” said Travers.

“I think that has something to do with it, particularly when you look at young people,” agreed Bale, calling the turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds unprecedented.

“I think it does also have quite a lot to do with their anger over Brexit.”

It’s also a reflection of Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity amongst young people, his strategists pushing comparisons with Bernie Sanders, the former U.S. Democratic candidate.

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Even though Labour lost the election, Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters say it vindicates their leader and their support for him. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Corbyn bounces back

For Corbyn, the results are tantamount to a Lazarus-like resurrection, a personal victory. Corbyn was written off not only by the mainstream media, but by 172 of his own parliamentary MPs who supported a no-confidence vote against him in June last year.

Even though Labour lost the election, Corbyn’s supporters say it vindicates their leader and their support for him. It will certainly insulate him from attempts to remove him, according to the analysts.

“Jeremy Corbyn has massively increased Labour’s vote share in an almost unprecedented way actually, if you look back over the post-war period,” said Bale.

“I have watched and listened to some wonderfully tortured senior Labour figures being confronted by the things they have said about Jeremy Corbyn’s un-electability,” said Travers.

Corbyn campaigned on a slogan of “For the many, not the few,” and capitalized on the grassroots support that won him the Labour leadership in the first place.

May’s campaign’s slogan of “strong and capable leadership” failed to connect with people on the doorstep, according to Tom Clarkson of the research firm WorldThinks.

“They think she lacks warmth,” he said in an interview just before the vote, whereas Corbyn came across as someone who “doesn’t just follow the political breeze.”

Big loss for SNP

Conservative policies calling for means testing for the elderly before they are eligible for home care and for a reinstatement of fox hunting also damaged May, according to Clarkson’s research.

One of the big losers of the night was the Scottish National Party, which dropped 21 seats. including two of its best-known advocates for an independent Scotland.

The deputy SNP leader, Angus Robertson, was defeated, as was former leader Alex Salmond.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, is being credited with a strong showing north of the border, tapping into unease over talk of another independence referendum.

The SNP will still be the third largest party in Parliament, and therefore a part of whatever tortured machinations are still to come in the days ahead as the dust settles.

If May tries to form a coalition to get her over the 326 threshold needed to pass legislation in Parliament, she’s expected to target the Democratic Unionist Party, which won 10 seats.

Sinn Fein also made gains at seven seats, but is not expected to take its seats given that it does not recognize the jurisdiction of Westminster.

That makes May’s numbers game a little easier. But there are difficult days ahead on all sides with this result. And most Brits today will be feeling like they may well be facing another election in the not too distant future. 

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