British Prime Minister Theresa May bet six weeks ago that her position was impregnable and that a snap election would further consolidate her power and that of her ruling Conservative Party. She bet wrong. Not only did last Thursday’s election reverse recent Conservative gains, but May lost her party’s majority in the lower house of Parliament. Personally, she emerges from the ballot weakened to the point that she may be unable to continue as prime minister. More important still, she has destroyed the foundation of her Brexit policy, the negotiations for Britain’s departure from the European Union.
After taking office when then-Prime Minister David Cameron resigned to take responsibility for the result of the referendum on United Kingdom membership in the EU, May promised that parliament would serve its full term as she negotiated Brexit. Conservative Party divisions on that issue, and the seeming implosion of the Labour Party under its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, prompted May to reverse course and call a snap ballot, one that was expected to widen her majority and strengthen her hand in dealing with dissent within the Tories and the EU.
Instead, May was humiliated in last week’s vote as Conservatives won just 318 seats, eight short of the 326 needed for a majority and 12 fewer than in the outgoing parliament. Labour, despite being 25 points behind in polls when the election was announced, picked up 30 seats, climbing from 30.4 percent of votes cast in 2015 to 40 percent last week.
May grimly declared that she would continue to lead the government and do what the British people had voted for in the referendum two years ago. To cobble together a majority in parliament, the Conservatives are negotiating a working alliance with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party, which is both pro-U.K. and pro-Brexit, but also want open borders with Ireland — difficult positions to reconcile. Scottish Conservatives gained 12 seats, but they too favor a “soft Brexit,” a position at odds with that of May.
Experts lay much of the blame for the appalling result at the prime minister’s feet. The reversal on the snap election was one problem but during the campaign May showed other signs of drift and indecision. One debacle was her claim that she had not reversed course when she decided to impose a cap on the total cost of social care bills to be borne by middle-class families; the Conservative manifesto (or party platform) that had been released just four days earlier insisted that such families would have to pay all their care costs up to £100,000 of assets. She insisted this was no change in position, nor could she explain how it would be paid for. This shift did great damage to her standing, in particular her attempts to compare herself to the resolute and unbending Margaret Thatcher.
More damaging still was support for hard Brexit, a move that won the support of hard-core UK Independence Party voters, but ensured the alienation of those who favored less onerous terms, many of whom were students who sat out the Brexit referendum. They were galvanized to vote in this ballot by that prospect, as well as by a Conservative austerity budget that would cut education funds, and a Labour pledge to boost such spending.
May is wounded, perhaps fatally, but it will be hard for Labour to cobble together a majority to govern. A progressive coalition would not reach the 326-seat threshold needed to claim a majority and many Labour parliamentarians have doubts about Corbyn’s positions. More likely is a revolt among Conservatives that substitutes May for a leader who would pursue a softer Brexit.
The EU is unlikely to accept such an option. Britain has voted to leave and its preferred terms — the ala carte option that maintains access to the Common Market without being subject to human rights and oversight from Brussels — are unacceptable to Brussels. With negotiations scheduled to begin in days, and a two-year deadline, some question whether Brexit is even possible. There is speculation of another U.K. election to resolve the impasse or even another vote on Brexit. The former is difficult; the latter is only whispered.
If there is an optimistic note in this ballot outcome, it is that British voters rejected the feverish populism that got them into this mess. Finding an exit strategy will not be easy. May is the second British prime minister in a row to have been hobbled by misjudgments and hubris. The U.K. is poorly served by such decisions and such politicians; it is not clear who can assume the mantle of leadership and will not be hobbled by the same shortcomings.