A hung parliament is not the result that British Prime Minister Theresa May or the bulk of political commentators expected from Thursday’s general election. In April, with a 20-point lead in polls over the Labour Party, May cynically triggered an election three years ahead of schedule. She hoped to strengthen her parliamentary majority and personal mandate in advance of Brexit negotiations scheduled to begin June 19.
Having made her own supposedly “strong and stable leadership” the central mantra of the Conservatives’ election campaign, May cannot escape personal responsibility for turning her party’s modest lower house majority into a minority. She now depends on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to pass legislation. But satisfying the socially conservative, pro-Brexit DUP tail that wags the Tory dog may leave the latter even more unpopular with voters — the majority of whom voted for the liberal progressive parties that now fill the opposition benches in the House of Commons. So what now for British politics and for the Brexit talks commencing in less than a week?
The usually cautious May gambled and failed. The outcome of the election diminishes her authority over her party and with the EU leaders she will face across the negotiating table. Plots to depose her abound among Tory MPs furious at her botched campaign. A series of policy U-turns, stiff stump speeches and negativity toward her opponents undermined the prime minister’s promise of a “strong and stable” government.
In comparison, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s political stature grew during the election. Having begun the campaign substantially behind in the polls, he won 40 percent of the vote for Labour. Corbyn — whom many described as Labour’s biggest electoral liability — won the party’s largest increase in vote share since 1945. He won 30 additional seats for his party, including in areas that have not returned a Labour MP in a century. Unlike the prime minister, Corbyn addressed mass rallies, took part in TV leaders’ debates and remained calm under intense media interrogation. Labour ran a largely positive campaign, promising an end to the austerity policies of the past two Tory governments. Their manifesto galvanized new supporters, particular among younger voters, who are usually less likely to vote than older Britons.
An increase in the youth vote pushed overall turnout to a 20-year high of 69 percent. The Tory tabloids’ demonizing of Corbyn had little effect on younger voters who depend more on new media for information. Despite offering a softer version of Brexit than the Conservatives, Labour won back some of the working-class voters it had lost to the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) in recent elections. Although Labour won 262 parliamentary seats compared to the Tories’ 318, only two percentage points separated them in the popular vote. Labour’s campaign clearly made a difference to voters’ perception of the party and its leader. In local elections just a month ago, Labour received the worst result for a main opposition party since the 1980s.
Britain’s smaller parties all did worse in this election than at the last parliamentary ballot in 2015. The Scottish Nationalist Party lost 21 of its 56 seats, the majority of them to the Conservatives. Tory gains in Scotland offer May some small comfort. The SNP’s losses mean that a second Scottish independence referendum is off the agenda for now. Prior to the general election, the Conservatives held just one seat in Scotland. They now hold 13. But credit for Tory gains north of the border go to Ruth Davidson, the party’s leader in Scotland, who offered a more positive message, including a more liberal platform and a more moderate vision of Brexit than May. The small Tory comeback in Scotland suggests that if the party seeks to form a majority government in future, it must move to the center ground. But this is unlikely to happen while May depends on the DUP.
Election night could have been even worse for May if her party had not benefited from the collapse in support for UKIP. Compared to 2015, UKIP’s share of the vote tumbled from 13 to just under 2 percent. Although May lost her Commons majority, the Conservatives actually won 5.5 percent more of the vote last week than in 2015. Many voters switching to the Tories came from UKIP. This can be seen by the surge in support for the Conservatives in Northern England, where voters disproportionately voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. May’s decision to adopt UKIP’s tone and agenda during the election campaign backfired in the pro-“remain” parts of southern and urban England, but led to gains in parts of the North and in rural constituencies.
In this election, Labour and the Conservatives together won more than 80 percent of the vote, compared to 67 percent in 2015. Despite pledging to keep Britain in the European single market and promising a second referendum on Britain’s EU membership, the Liberal Democrats failed to win over pro-remain voters. The Lib Dems increased their number of seats from eight to 12, but on a reduced share of the vote. This result points to two conclusions. First, Brexit is less important to British voters than domestic issues, especially the economy and public services. And second, two-party politics has returned to the United Kingdom. Both of these developments may embolden Labour to use its increased parliamentary muscle to challenge May on Brexit and on other issues.
In the last parliament, Labour was timid about opposing May’s hard-Brexit stance for fear of alienating its working-class base, among which many voted to leave the EU. But surprisingly, Brexit was a less important election issue for voters than most politicians and pundits expected. If Labour decides to challenge May over post-Brexit EU immigration rules or membership of the EU customs union, potentially it has the means to force a compromise.
Labour is the largest party in the House of Lords, and in combination with other opposition parties has a majority in the upper house, which has already delivered defeats to May over Brexit. In March, it successfully added amendments to government legislation triggering the Brexit process, including guaranteeing parliament a vote on the final deal reached with Europe, and giving EU nationals the right to remain in the U.K. A majority in the Commons allowed May to override the amendments. By convention, the Lords do not oppose measures in the government’s manifesto, if the governing party having a Commons majority. But May has no mandate for her version of Brexit. And it is not only in the Lords that she faces a bumpy ride. A rebellion by only a handful of pro-EU Conservatives will be all it takes for May to lose the slim majority she commands with support from the DUP.
Moderating her current hard-Brexit stance on immigration and membership of the single market would mollify pro-EU members of her party, but at the expense of estranging not only the DUP but also the 60 or so Brexit hardliners within her own ranks. Even with her authority strengthened by an election victory and improved majority, it would have been hard for May to negotiate a deal with the EU that would have satisfied the different factions within her party. Emasculated by her poor election performance, it will be almost impossible for May to keep her party in check. EU leaders will be reluctant to offer May any concessions they don’t think her party will swallow. A weak prime minister with an uncertain future puts Britain in a perilous position as it enters its most important negotiations for generations.
Tina Burrett is an associate professor of political science at Sophia University.