During the election campaign — or what passed for it — Theresa May would sometimes declare that Britain was facing its most important choice for a generation. If she lost just six seats, she said at one point, then Jeremy Corbyn would be heading to Brussels to negotiate Brexit. But if the risk was so great, why call an election in the first place? She was closer to the mark outside No.10 early this afternoon, when she declared this was a ‘critical time for our country’. All the more critical as a result of her calamitous handling of the election.
This was a needless election, intended to tighten Theresa May’s grip over her own government. It was essentially an act of vanity, seeking to rebrand the Conservative party as ‘Theresa May’s team’ on the questionable premise that an increased majority would give her greater authority when negotiating Brexit. The public got the sense that they were being roped into a coronation ceremony, and bridled. Those who believed there were greater issues at stake, or more important discussions to be had, were given clichés and platitudes which — over these past few weeks — have become May’s trademark. Her campaign insulted the intelligence. She did not deserve to win.
The public concluded that Jeremy Corbyn did not deserve to win either, so we now have a hung parliament – and are back to the days of compromise. It looks as if Mrs May’s government will have to rely on a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. And what price will it come at? The DUP have a reputation for co-operating at a price. And if that price is (for example) staying in the EU Customs Union to facilitate trade with the Republic of Ireland, then Mrs May is in a weak position.
But her position is — due to her missteps — so weak as to be almost untenable. She was an unknown quantity to most voters, despite her six years as home secretary, but placed herself front and centre of the campaign. To begin with, high personal approval ratings suggested this was a good idea — but the more the public got to know her, the less they were impressed. In interviews, she could sound shrill and evasive; notably, she decided not to attend the leaders’ TV debate, which now looks like a serious error. The endless repetition of soundbites, much mocked, made it look as if the Prime Minister took the voters for fools.
In short, throughout the campaign, Mrs May’s weaknesses were highlighted rather than her strengths. She wanted to project an image of steeliness — of strong and stable leadership in contrast to Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour-led ‘coalition of chaos’. Unfortunately, chaos and a coalition is roughly the result.
There were other strategic flaws in the campaign. The Conservatives stopped talking about the deficit and austerity. There was simply no clear plan to balance the books. This left them vulnerable to Labour’s manifesto pledges, which involved huge giveaways, particularly to young voters with the offer of free university tuition. In this context, the so-called dementia tax and the pledge to take away the winter fuel allowance from well-off pensioners looked not like prudent management of taxpayers’ money, but like a cruel attack on core Tory supporters.
It was extraordinary to see Mrs May, in the last week of the campaign, forced on the defensive on security by Jeremy Corbyn of all people, in the wake of the third terrorist attack on British soil in as any months. The reason she was able to cut police numbers — which was the crux of the matter — is that she was so successful in cutting crime; and the police response at London Bridge was rapid and effective. Yet she struggled to articulate this basic point.
The voters saw that, since she took office, she has struggled to work with her cabinet, keeping them in the dark and instead preferring to rely on the advice of aides who were with her at the Home Office. The difficulty she has running a larger team stood exposed as her single greatest weakness.
Before the election, the Prime Minister’s successes lay in areas that we didn’t hear much about, one of them being Brexit. On the withdrawal negotiations, at least, she set out clear parameters. She made it clear that Britain will withdraw from the single market and the customs union, and instead seek a free trade agreement with the EU, as well as opting into pan-European forms of co-operation on issues such as security. Without a majority, however, these plans are all in doubt. Where there was certainty, she has brought confusion.
During the past few weeks, Theresa May tried to campaign without her party. The results are now here for all to see. As a result, the Tories would not dare call another general election in the next few months lest Jeremy Corbyn, who is already halfway to No.10, completes his journey. She will now have to rebuild her relationship with her party — explaining how she will be a better party leader, and why she deserves a second chance. Her colleagues will have the even harder task of deciding whether she deserves one.