Another massive surprise in world politics — Theresa May’s “sure thing” election campaign has crashed. She turned a majority in Parliament of 17 into a minority government. It’s the worst political performance in the UK in memory.
What happened and what could it mean?
I arrived in London May 23, just after the Manchester terrorist bombing that killed 22, many of them young people. The next day in London, life was sadder but seemingly normal again. The British, it was said, are used to even this kind of killing.
The election campaign, after a brief suspension, rolled on. But it soon became apparent that the wheels of Theresa May’s campaign had fallen off. She did a couple of U-turns on policy, including an awkward and unconvincing reversal of a poorly conceived and terribly communicated project to oblige elderly people pay for care in their own home.
Much turned on personal performance, and May did not shine. Her appearances became tightly scripted and controlled. Her circle of advisors was narrowed to a few in Number 10. She came across as in a bubble and out of touch.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign did shine. The grizzled leftie Labour leader had been type-cast by big media as wanting in charisma, and as a creature of an unelectable class-driven radical political culture. He came across instead as empathetic, very much in touch with a popular yearning for a greater sense of community. His policy prescriptions — like Bernie Sanders’ in the U.S. — didn’t resonate as crazy; they may have been unaffordable, but they touched a chord with younger voters in particular, distressed by growing income disparity. He was on to a popular mood. May was the status quo.
Dramatically and tragically, 12 days after Manchester, another horrible terrorist atrocity struck, murdering eight more on London Bridge and in the trendy Borough Market area where people were enjoying a summer Saturday night out.
Again, the media profiled the killers’ backgrounds as being essentially known supporters of hard-line and even jihadist projects, young migrant men who veered to murder the people in the country that gave them refuge.
This time the response was angry. It wasn’t directed at Muslims but at the notion that these twisted killers thought the British could be intimidated. Pundits speculated that the awful event would play to May’s credibility as a long-time and hard-lined Home Secretary. But instead, it was recalled that she had cut back on police staffing.
In the end, the violence probably wasn’t a factor in the election outcome. That an election for democratic upheaval went ahead in a positive way despite these awful and demented killings is a great statement about the strength of the fabric of democracy.
May paid a price for deciding not to debate her opponents. Instead, BBC put her and Corbyn in back-to-back extensive interviews; the performance contrast was to me devastating.
May had called this election to exploit Labour’s disarray and to win a strong mandate with which to enter the Brexit negotiations, scheduled to start in days. She counted on a swing to the Tories of the UKIP vote whose cause had ostensibly been sated by last year’s referendum and by May’s surprisingly tough line with the EU.
As elsewhere, “politics as usual” stirred resentment. People balked at the calling of an election primarily for the sake of party advantage.
What have we learned? Campaigns do matter.
So does tone. This is another striking example of the power of a campaign of hope over fear. Justin Trudeau tapped into it. Emmanuel Macron perfected it. In between, Hillary Clinton took the fear route and lost. So did David Cameron over Brexit itself.
There are many lessons for democratic politicians. The most important one recalls Cameron’s ill-fated and poorly executed choice to have a referendum on Brexit. Don’t call elections unless you can succeed. Division of societies won’t work any more. (Australian strategist of division politics Lyndon Crosby should now hang it up and open an angry pub somewhere.)
What happens now? The prime minister has lost her majority. She is humiliated and has lost credibility. How can the UK proceed with confidence in Brussels? Will she survive as leader? It is unclear who will be British prime minister a month or two from now.
This is an election result that promises another early election. It is unlikely that the Conservatives will be led by May.
Britain is divided, more than ever, and in particular by a schism between older and younger electors. It is another message that the exiting generation cannot count on making decisions for those who are going to have to live with them.
There are other implications.
It is symbolically important to expect that one event is less likely to happen: the opportunistically extended invitation by May to U.S. President Donald Trump to pay an early state visit to the UK. She dropped it on her gushy early pilgrimage to the White House to try to portray how post-Brexit Britain could be a big world player.
Trump’s picks in Europe have tanked: Marine LePen, and now May. Trump himself tanked in his own meetings with NATO and the G7. U.S. partners were repelled by his ignorance and mediocrity.
The UK presumption of a “special relationship” has become toxic. Trump had on the UK’s election day probably the worst day in his ill-fated presidency as former FBI director James Comey showed him up as a liar. May’s invitation to come and stay with the Queen was a rash and generally unwelcome one when it was made. It is now undo-able: there will be glasses of sherry lifted in relief at Windsor Castle.
Britain itself has been diminished by a series of major recent decisions. But this Thursday, the British spoke as a democratic people in favour of their own welfare. There is massive talent in a diverse Britain and belief in its potential. May didn’t get it or connect to it. But it will prevail.