Even a face that gives away as little as possible as Theresa May’s couldn’t conceal the immense disappointment and disbelief at the catastrophic failure of her gamble last night; watching the declaration in Maidenhead, it was evident the PM couldn’t quite believe the General Election she could have waited another three years to call hadn’t seen her sweep all before her. The poll published a few days ago that predicted a Hung Parliament was dismissed by the experts, yet the shock of the exit poll unveiled at 10.00pm, strongly hinting that the party with a runaway lead over the opposition just a couple of months back wouldn’t get a majority, also seemed too good to be true; and yet, it has come to pass.
Flashbacks to February 1974 were hard to avoid as the fascinating saga unfolded; like Ted Heath (if for different reasons), Theresa May had called a snap Election confident she would trounce the competition; it was undoubtedly a gamble, but one she entered into with unassailable arrogance and an assumption she would walk it. Like Heath, May is in possession of a rather chilly aloofness and doesn’t appear very comfortable confronting the electorate, so did her best to avoid them; even putting the shoddy manifesto aside, this didn’t play well with the public. May also has the same stubborn intransigence as Heath, refusing to countenance advice from anyone outside of her close-knit cabal; her determination to cling onto power after failing to achieve a majority – when the outset of the campaign suggested a landslide – is another characteristic she shares with her 70s predecessor.
The main difference between June 2017 and February 1974, though, is that the two main parties were far closer then than this time round; however storming and surprising a performance by Labour, they’re still nowhere near having enough seats to legitimately form an administration without entering into coalition. Harold Wilson was in a far stronger position 43 years ago. One other factor that distinguishes 2017 from 1974 is that, unlike Heath, the PM has entered into an agreement with Unionists in Ulster; at one time, the Tories could always rely on Unionist support, though Heath lost it in the wake of Sunningdale; had he been able to call on it, he would probably have remained PM. May’s deal with the DUP, emphasised by her brief lectern speech this lunchtime – when she tellingly referred to her party by its full, rarely-used title of Conservative and Unionist Party – will hardly appease the anger within Tory circles at her reckless decision to call this unnecessary Election.
Another factor that saved absolute Conservative humiliation was the party’s remarkable performance in Scotland, something that can be attributed to Ruth Davidson rather than Mrs May. Both Labour and even the Lib Dems played their part in slashing the SNP’s majority, but the Tories were the biggest national success story north of the border, a situation unthinkable even just two years ago. It wasn’t the best of nights for the SNP, though – the loss of former leader Alex Salmond and Westminster leader Angus Robertson was something of a surprise, and any talk of a second Independence Referendum is considerably more muted now; along with Nick Clegg’s defeat, these were the biggest casualties in terms of famous names. Two leading Cabinet Ministers – Justine Greening and Amber Rudd – only just scraped through too; in the case of the latter, it really was a damned close run thing.
The collapse in the UKIP vote that many assumed would solely benefit the Tories undoubtedly helped Labour capture many of the surprising seats they took, none more so than Canterbury, a seat held by the Conservatives for a century. Labour’s share of the vote was almost on a par with the share they enjoyed during Tony Blair’s landslide years, yet they had so much ground to recover after 2010 and 2015 that even the most fanatical Corbynistas couldn’t envisage them becoming the largest party. But can Theresa May command the confidence of the Commons? Losing the majority she inherited from David Cameron is hardly strong or stable.
The threat of yet another General Election within a year and the prospect of staggering on with a minority administration that will severely limit her chances of success means May’s days as Tory leader and Prime Minister appear to be numbered. The same glum expression worn by May at the Maidenhead count was writ large on the faces of many Tory MPs interviewed last night, and the thought of one more Tory leadership contest being on the cards (and therefore another unelected PM) when Britain is poised to enter into the Brexit negotiations won’t alter that, nor will the fact that the UK’s immediate political future is effectively in the hands of Stormont. This is the worst possible outcome of a gamble Theresa May should take responsibility for; and as she’s sold herself as a solo artist in Presidential mould, it’s her responsibility alone.
© The Editor