In less than a year, the UK’s Brexit referendum has destroyed the career of its second Conservative Prime Minister. The resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May (pictured) may not happen immediately, but her authority and credibility are fatally damaged and her time in office will now be measured in weeks and months rather than years.
If the politics of the last year has taught us anything, it is that politicians cannot take the electorate for granted. In the same way that her predecessor David Cameron thought he could sway the British people to support continued membership of the European Union, May thought she could translate her promotion of a “hard Brexit” into an increased Parliamentary majority. Both were proved catastrophically wrong.
Having fought a faltering and unsteady campaign, the Prime Minister cut a lonely and uninspiring figure. Separated from her special advisors on the campaign trail, she seemed unable to engage. She was brittle, humourless, and lacking in empathy, and her decision to avoid the Leaders Debate cast her as both aloof and scared of the fray. It is a mistake that no future leader will dare to repeat.
The Conservative presentation of “strong and stable” leadership backfired horribly. May’s policies on pensioners needlessly alienated her core voters, and she was forced to abandon a central manifesto pledge on reform of social care. As the election wore on, the strategy to put May front and center only made her look lonely and isolated within her own party. After the leak that the Prime Minister was prepared to sack her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, he and other senior figures were absent from the campaign, adding to the sense of her dislocation from the main stream.
This was May’s election, and as it started to slip away, her party colleagues were prepared to let her own the result and its consequences. The Conservatives will not risk another election with her at the helm.
From this point onward, May’s credibility is irreparably damaging, making her an unsteady figure to lead the Brexit negotiations with the EU. She reversed her declaration of “no snap election” to seek an increased Parliamentary majority and mandate for the talks and their aftermath. Now she has neither.
The future is further complicated by the Conservatives’ new-found reliance on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party, as well as the salvation of new MPs in Scotland offsetting losses in England, to govern. Both the DUP, which is staunchly opposed to the social policies promoted by May in the campaign, and the Scottish MPs — maneuvering between Brexit and the threatened second referendum for Scottish independence — are far less likely to support the Prime Minister’s previous approach than Tories who lost their seats on Thursday.
Despite the best efforts of the two main parties to avoid talking about Brexit in detail, the ripples from last year’s referendum have penetrated every constituency in this election. The negotiations with the EU remain the biggest issue. They will dominate the contest as to who replaces May and could well decide how the next administration — if it has any significant time in office — governs.
But the implications of the election’s outcome are far-reaching in other ways. The surprise result demonstrates the extent to which UK politics is split not just amongst its constituent nations, but also between young and old, urban and rural, and rich and poor as well as Leave and Remain. The Labour Party’s success was to campaign on a message of hope and change and a wishlist of feel-good spending promises that it knew it had little prospect of having to fulfil.
Behaving as if the Brexit issue was already settled, it could wilfully ignore the fact that the next Parliament and all the energy of Whitehall will be consumed by the process of leaving the EU and trying to negotiate back access to the trading bloc on less favourable terms.
Depriving the Conservatives of their majority while finishing second is a blessing in disguise for Labour — making good on the promises made for Brexit is an impossible task and this election result makes the pursuit even more difficult. Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn can be satisfied that, surviving the waves of derision from his opponents and even within his party, he has recast the political debate within the UK away from the center ground pioneered by Labour under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010. Populist anti-austerity and anti-elite voices cannot be ignored or taken for granted by politicians — and those who choose to do so are likely to suffer the same fates as Cameron and May.
But if Corbyn and his supporters see encouragement for the long-term future for their cause, others will be concerned that this is more evidence of the end of the post-Thatcher consensus that has characterised British politics for almost 30 years. The waves of Brexit are building, and whether a truly-united United Kingdom can ride them is even more in question after this election.
David Dunn is Professor in International Politics at the University of Birmingham