The Conservatives face a battle today to form a Government in a hung parliament following the loss of their slim majority as Prime Minister Theresa May’s gamble for a national boost failed in a shock result. Negotiations with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have resulted in an informal collation whose 10 seats would provide the Conservatives with enough support to form a workable majority.
The mixed fortunes of the parties has been extremely unpredictable – the Conservatives won Mansfield, a seat that has been Labour for 100 years and was not even a target seat, while Labour won Battersea, overturning an 8,000 majority. The SNP’s crumbling base in Scotland, losing a third of its seats, provided the lifeline of 21 seats that has helped the Prime Minister limp across the finish line to form another government.
Certainly there are historical precedents to which those seeking to make predications can look. The most obvious parallels are too Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath’s disastrous 1974 elections when he called a snap election to “return a strong government with a firm mandate” which instead resulted in a Labour forming a minority government, and then consolidated their victory in a second election in November. The 1983 election also has significant parallels, as it was the last time the Conservatives polled so well in Scotland, curiously nationally the Conservatives also polled as high as the successful Thatcher re-election campaign although this will be of little comfort as vote numbers did not translate into seats this time around.
The greatest contributing factor appears to have been voter turnout, the highest since 1992. While the Conservatives won the largest number of seats since 1983, Labour dramatically increased the voter turnout, with expectations that analysis will show increased voting numbers for under 25s who have been energised by Corbyn’s campaign.
The sharp decline in May’s popularity, and the unexpected success of Corbyn’s hands-on campaigning, especially in the past few weeks, had been born out in some predictions, with some heady estimations of a Conservative landslide being revised down to take into account shifts in voter intentions. What was clear is that from a staggering 20 point lead, this was an election for May to lose, rather than win. A cool persona with little personal interaction and very low visibility, the skills honed by May which helped her become the longest serving peacetime Home Secretary appears to have been the very things that alienated voters. This lack of personal influence became clear last night as every target seat that the Prime Minister visited during the campaign was not won by the Conservatives. The disastrous launch of the Conservative Manifesto, with the dementia tax, fox hunting and a lift on the ivory ban, May alienated voters and not just her backbenchers but Cabinet members who had not been privy to the content of the document before it was announced. Corbyn, who has consistently polled far lower than the Labour party, produced a manifesto that engaged the electorate, while his rallies, which were dismissed as archaic and cultish, clearly had significant cut through.
Some are viewing Conservative loses, both to the Lib Dems and Labour, especially in metropolitan areas as an anti ‘hard Brexit’ statement. Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron was widely viewed as making a tactical error by focusing so strongly on a pro-EU stance intended to engage with the 48% who voted remain during the EU Referendum, nonetheless the party has increased a number of its seats including the return of its ‘big beasts’ Vince Cable and Sir Ed Davey. Labour, despite its mixed engagement with the EU Referendum last year, set out its commitment to retain the benefits of single market and customs union and back off from the hard line negotiations and the risk of walking away from a deal. Certainly the result throws doubt on the style of negotiations, as the mandate May had sought from the public for her version of hard Brexit has not been realised. What this means for the Brexit negotiations that were due to commence in a matter of days, is unclear, while the European Parliament’s lead Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted this morning “yet another own goal, after Cameron now May, will make already complex negotiations even more complicated.”
So what is the most likely scenario for Theresa May’s leadership? The Liberal Democrats had ruled out another Conservative coalition, and only a few seats away from an absolute majority, the Conservatives are already seeking an alliance with the DUP, a socially conservative group with 10 seats. However, the longevity of a formal or informal coalition is difficult to predict and another election by the end of the year is not beyond the realms of possibility. Never sentimental, the Conservative party has always been focussed on electability, and manoeuvres are already underway to remove the leader they perceive as the cause of this electoral disaster. While the removal of May from the leadership seems inevitable, timing will be the deciding factor, as the immediate concern must be the beginning of Brexit negotiations.
This election was borne out of opportunism to capitalise on staggering polling leads to shore up a majority and deliver a mandate on May’s vision. In the cold light of the morning, May’s decision looks hubristic and flawed, with the future of May, the Conservatives and Brexit all hanging in the balance.