Well, well that was a turn up for the books. Very few people saw that result coming. The Prime Minister certainly didn’t, and nor did the press. I must admit to a certain schadenfreude watching the unfolding drama as the hand of hubris slapped Theresa May down. I was grinning nearly as widely as George Osborne, but as the night wore on my joy was tempered by the reality of the situation that we are now in. Yes, Theresa May’s arrogance was exposed but we do not have a parliament even closely resembling that which I’d like to see (which was never on the cards anyway) and it has left the country without an effective government.
The polls showed she couldn’t fail. The polls were wrong.
Having been an almost invisible Remainer, Theresa May was accused of opportunism when she won the Conservative leadership – almost by default – against some prominent Brexiteers. However, being the Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority it seemed wasn’t enough. She wanted to win an election and she saw a chance to do this while significantly increasing that majority and hammering a beleaguered Labour party into the ground. The polls showed she couldn’t fail. The polls were wrong.
Theresa May’s arrogance has been on display since she first called this election to ‘crush the saboteurs’ as the Mail put it in their inimitable way. She was convinced that she would win a landslide victory and increased majority and not many, it seemed, disagreed as the 1992 Committee chanted “Five More Years!”.1 But if you thought her decision to call the election was breathtaking then her behaviour on Friday morning reached another level altogether. She had made the most monumental misjudgement in British politics since…. well since David Cameron called an EU referendum, and yet there was no hint of that in a speech in which she vowed to form a government that can provide certainty. “Now let’s get to work”2 she said, as if her plan had been executed perfectly.
My distrust of Mrs May goes back to 2011, when as Home Secretary she claimed at the Conservative Party conference that an immigrant could not be “deported because – and I’m not making this up – he had a pet cat”.
It turned out she was making it up.3 This is a prime example of what I call – for wont of a better phrase – the ‘age of bullshit’. Yes, the story is untrue, but it’s a little simplistic just to call it a lie. Theresa May (or at least her department and speech writers) knew that the story about the cat wasn’t accurate but it’s the aside about not making it up that really irked me. As soon as she had uttered the words, fact checkers were to be found debunking her suggestion, but the beauty of bullshit is that, if used effectively, the lie can reach more people than the truth. In this instance, the calculated false incredulity was just enough to give the story extra legs. On other occasions, these things can be spread by simply shouting them frequently and loudly enough or by printing them on the side of a bus. The bullshit doesn’t even need to be a lie, often it is just meaningless nonsense such as ‘make America great again’ or ‘take back control’. Theresa May’s campaign had rather more bullshit than substance.
So, what of Labour? Jeremy Corbyn has claimed a famous victory. Certainly Labour surpassed most people’s expectations – no mean feat against the backdrop of such a hostile press and unsupportive colleagues – but he has not won. Labour will be hoping that this result will unite the party and prove the foundation for a genuine hope of government at the next election. Sure, some of his detractors may have been won over, and I never subscribe to theories that anyone is unelectable, but problems remain for Corbyn and for Labour. I think there was a very distinct dynamic to this election and one which emphasised even more strongly the duopoly in our politics. The next election, whenever that may be, could be completely different. Yes, there was much against Corbyn in this election but there was also much for him. By focusing the campaign on the choice between her and Corbyn, Theresa May ensured that many who were against her gave their support to him. Tactical voting was very much a factor in this election and, while a variety of people benefited across the country, I’m sure Corbyn did particularly well out of this.
In Scotland too, nobody can really claim a victory from results that were probably far more predictable than the UK wide vote. With 56 of 59 seats won in 2015, there was only one way the SNP performance could go and results in other elections in the last year or so indicated that it would be the Conservatives that would benefit from this. It was no surprise to me that the SNP lost enough seats to look vulnerable while still being comfortably the largest group of Scottish MP’s in Westminster. On the flip side, other parties – the Conservatives in particular – can point to gains as a sign of success but are still vastly outnumbered. As with the Council elections last month, Ruth Davidson (it was all about her just as it was about May nationwide) focused on opposition to a second independence referendum to the near exclusion of all else. Unlike last month, however, this is at least an issue relevant to Westminster.
Of course, as the leader (at the time of writing) of the largest party in the Commons, Theresa May is entitled to attempt to form a government. As much as we may not like it, she can call on the support of whichever party – or parties – that she chooses. However, any deal with the DUP – which has still to be agreed – seems fraught with danger. Not least because one of the many accusations that her campaign threw at Jeremy Corbyn was that he was a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ as he’d had discussions with Sinn Fein. It is those repeated attacks that make her deal with the DUP – every bit as connected to paramilitary groups as Sinn Fein – look just a tiny bit hypocritical and vulnerable.
Theresa May must maintain her promised “strong and stable” government in the most difficult of circumstances.
More significantly, though, Theresa May – for I imagine this will still very much be the May show – must maintain her promised “strong and stable” government in the most difficult of circumstances. Following the 2010 general election, I confidently (and incorrectly) predicted that we would be facing another within 12 months. I underestimated the extent to which the Lib Dems would be prepared to compromise on their apparently firmly held principles. Even without the ties to paramilitaries, the DUP seem a more toxic party to do business with. They take some very strong positions on issues so divisive they make the soft/hard Brexit debate look like choosing a favourite flavour of ice cream. If this government is to have any hope of lasting anywhere near a full term while achieving anything in policy terms, the PM will have to keep both the DUP and more moderate members of her own party happy. That’s not going to be an easy task for a leader so clearly weakened by this election.