In one of the great dramas in British political life, the Prime Minister, Theresa May called an election when she was 25 points ahead in the polls – and six weeks later is now clinging to power, without a majority in Parliament, dependent on a small party from Northern Ireland.
She called the election at a time when she appeared to be in a very strong position and the opposition weak and unelectable. She asked for a strong mandate to negotiate a good deal with the EU as the UK leaves, but has been left barely able to command a majority in Parliament.
So what happened?
The figures tell some of the story. The number of votes for both major Parties went up, but the increase for the opposition Labour Party was 9.5%, nearly double the 5.5% increase for the Conservatives. Many of these were from people who previously voted UKIP, but now, after the referendum, felt able to return to Labour. The Conservatives had bet that the vast majority of these Brexit-supporting voters would come over to them. In fact it may be that Jeremy Corbyn’s lukewarm support for Remain and decision to accept the referendum result gave these voters the opportunity to return to Labour.
The result can also be ascribed in part to a rejection of 10 long, hard years of Conservative Party austerity. Many of those who voted for the UK to Leave the EU have suffered during the attempts by the Conservative Government to cut spending. The demographic that voted to Leave last summer, angered by paying a price for globalisation and feeling ignored, are it seems, also angered with cuts to school budgets, pressure on the National Health Service and cuts to local authority services.
The Conservative Manifesto also attacked things that are important to the core Conservative vote, breaking promises on pensions and proposing that peoples’ homes would have be sold to pay for their long-term health care.
The final failure was that the Conservatives tried to run a presidential campaign which claimed that the Prime Minister was ‘strong and stable’. The country liked that idea initially and her support soared, but within days Mrs May was changing her mind about key parts of the manifesto, proving that she was neither strong nor stable.
On the other side, the Labour Party ran a campaign that promised everything to everyone. Promises of increases in spending on everything, paid for by only a few tax rises on the very wealthy. This proved irresistible to a huge majority of younger voters. It is also true that some voters thought that they could vote for the Labour Party safe in the knowledge that the Conservatives would win, a sort of protest vote. They were very nearly proven wrong.
Labour did not win, but the Conservatives only managed to win 319 out of the 650 seats in the lower House of Parliament. To have an effective working majority (once the Northern Ireland party Sinn Fein, which does not take it seats in the British Parliament, and the Speaker and Deputy Speakers are excluded) parties need to command 320 seats. After this election no party has a working majority. The Conservatives are therefore trying to secure an agreement with the DUP, a small socially conservative Party from Norther Ireland, which would get the Conservatives to 329 seats and so a functional majority.
This will still only be a tiny minority, handing a lot of power to factions within the Conservative Party. Some say this would make the Prime Minister too dependent on Hard Brexiteers, who want a minimal deal with the EU. This is true, but it is equally true she would also be vulnerable to Soft Brexiteers, who would like to leave the EU, but only in name, not in practical terms.
Mrs May will remain as Prime Minister for the moment, but her political credibility has been shattered. There is a lot of anger in the Party; and the arrangement with the DUP is fragile. ‘Confidence and supply’ is the nature of the agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP. It is a looser arrangement than a formal coalition deal and means that the DUP will support the Government and its budget, but all other votes would be determined on a case-by-case basis – leading to considerable day- to-day uncertainty in government business and its legislative agenda.
In her weakened state, the Prime Minister has reappointed most of the key players in the previous administration to their previous Cabinet positions. Despite this, there remains a lot of unhappiness among senior Cabinet members and the wider Conservative Party over the way she conducted the election campaign – and yet there is also no clear agreement among the Party on a credible alternative leader, nor a strong appetite for an imminent leadership contest.
It has been announced that Queen’s Speech – in which a new Government sets out its business for the year – has been delayed. This underlines the difficulties the Government is having in putting together a programme of legislation that would pass through both Houses of Parliament. It is understood that civil servants are looking at the legislative programme only on the basis of Bills that will receive cross-party support in both Houses.
In terms of major policy implications, there have been further indications that the Government will soften its opening negotiating position in the Brexit negotiations. Currently the debate is between those favouring a ‘no deal’ WTO option, to those favouring membership of the EU Customs Union and/or some form of membership of the Single Market, or trading arrangements in line with the EEA or the EFTA rules.
Given the numerical instability of the Government, the level of political uncertainty is expected to continue. There is good chance of a further election later this year or early next year – although there is recognition among many Conservative Party supporters that this would be very risky for them.
Even if Theresa May remains in place, we wold expect further speculation concerning a future leadership candidates.