At the vote count in her constituency, a clearly shocked Theresa May stood next to a fellow candidate, a helmeted man in a black cape called Lord Buckethead. This British tradition of outlandish clown candidates somehow seemed fitting given the madness of the hour, and the electoral shock-treatment the voters had just delivered.
In one of the most dramatic results in British political history, an election designed to return a “strong and stable” government under Theresa May has ended up with a weak and wobbly minority Conservative government dependent on the 10 MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. At one point talk of a 200-seat majority was not uncommon. This was the second election in three not to deliver a majority, once a rarity under the British electoral system.
The British electorate has yet again thumbed its nose at the political classes, shaken up the received wisdom and delivered a result that may compel opposing political movements to work with each other. It was a polarizing left-wing versus right-wing battle reminiscent of previous decades. The political center-ground is a wasteland.
There are some sharp lessons to be learned by all.
Firstly, it was a defeat for Conservative hubris, amid anger at a perceived entitlement to power. Two years ago, the Conservatives could not win the election, but did. In 2017 they could not lose, but did. Many did not want an election and punished May for appearing to assume that a massive majority was a certainty. Voters want to be taken seriously and resented an election where the Prime Minister did not engage with them and did not fully explain her policies, not least on the core issue of Brexit.
Secondly, the trend of disenchantment with the establishment continues. The Conservatives were rejected in England and the ruling Scottish National Party lost 21 seats in Scotland, where a second independence vote is now highly unlikely. Politically, voters are even more fluid in their choices than ever before.
Thirdly, although there was precious little debate on Brexit during the campaign, attitudes toward Europe were clearly key. Constituencies that voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum tended to boost the Labour vote, as was the case in London. This indicates that people want a less hard-line position in negotiations with the EU. The far-right anti-EU party UKIP crashed to just 2 percent of the vote. This is yet another welcome setback for the far-right in Europe, after failing to break through in France and the Netherlands.
Having failed to win a clear majority, the UK’s Conservative Party does not have an explicit mandate for any part of its manifesto, so could be challenged on nearly all its policy program.
Fourthly, young voters turned out in record numbers, overwhelmingly voting for Labour. Their failure to turn out in the EU referendum effectively caused Brexit. Parties will have to respond and not ignore the youth vote in future.
Finally, the country remains divided on many lines, old versus young, rural versus urban, north versus south, graduates versus non-graduates. Precious little is in the pipeline that looks like altering that. For all the talk of healing this rift after last year’s referendum, if anything it has got worse.
Despite the Conservatives being the largest party, with 318 MPs according to the count yesterday afternoon, Theresa May’s hold on power will be fragile. She will almost certainly remain as prime minister for the time being, but her situation is precarious. It is highly doubtful she will be allowed to fight the next election. One minister was reported stating: “This is bad, it is worse than bad. Her advisers should walk out of the door now never to return, regardless of the final result.” That said, the Conservatives are aware of the dangers of electing a new leader or risking a further election.
Her opponent Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has achieved what many thought was impossible. He will be the unchallenged leader of the party which will now be in the grip of the left for the foreseeable future. That said, Labour has lost three elections in a row, and questions will be asked inside the party as to how to address that.
The Brexit negotiations are meant to start in nine days, meaning the real work kicks off again. The election has been a largely unwanted interlude, a distraction in the diplomatic jousting that will be the hallmark of the Brexit negotiations.
May will have to alter her approach and do something she was reluctant to do before, to build a broader political consensus on the way forward. Her opponents in Europe, many who do not like her, may be smug but ultimately all parties need to work for a positive deal according to their interests. The chance of a delay in the negotiations is high. May will have to work hard to keep her party together on the issue, making deals with her backbenchers as much as her EU counterparts.
Uncertainty rules. This government could last five years or five months. May could remain or be retired. Having failed to win a clear majority, the Conservative Party does not have an explicit mandate for any part of its manifesto, so could be challenged on nearly all its policy program. Back in 2010, David Cameron proved adept at forming a coalition, massaging consensus and compromise. The question is whether May, who portrays herself as tough and obstinate in the mold of Margaret Thatcher, can be flexible enough to do the sorts of deals to keep Britain going forward.
• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.