She ran it as the red hot ‘me, me, me’ campaign. And ended it as the ‘woe is me’ bigtime loser.
If Theresa May gambled on playing the Maybot churning out ‘strong and stable’ slogans ad nauseam then she lost it in the manner of a weak and wobbly kamikaze pilot.
And in the wreckage around her lay the reputational corpse of her election guru, Sir Lynton Crosby, the legendary ‘Wizard of Oz. But, as I flagged up in these pages a couple of issues ago, the original Wizard of Oz turned out to be a fake and a humbug. And so it proved for real in this remarkable, redefining political landscape forged in the white heat of the 2017 general election.
For May, leading the party with the biggest number of seats doesn’t even qualify as a pyrrhic victory. Instead, for her, but not for Britain, it ranks as an unmitigated disaster.
With her credibility in tatters and her survival as prime minister hanging by the thinnest of gossamer threads, the Tory knives were already being unsheathed before the final results were even in. Guesting on the ITV election panel, George Osborne’s face bore the expression of a man starting to regret swapping frontline politics for the editor’s chair at the London Evening Standard.
There wasn’t even a consoling call for Theresa May from the one Western leader certain to be sharing her sense of shock and grief. Donald Trump was too busy conferring with his advisers on how to counter the dramatic testimony of sacked FBI director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill.
In fact, I’m reliably informed, the beleaguered US president had to be persuaded NOT to publicly declare his support for his hand-holding British favourite (apologist?) before the results came in and was being implored by senior diplomats and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to tweet anything that could be seen as an attempt to interfere with the UK election fallout.
Intriguingly, for whoever emerges as Britain’s next prime minister, the ‘Trump problem’ will inevitably pop up high on the things to do agenda. With mounting public fury over his ignorant, ill-informed Twitter attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the wake of the London Bridge terrorist outrage, the case for scrapping the US president’s ill-advised, May-inspired state visit is a compelling one.
While James Comey’s testimony (on what amounted to an extraordinary display of political double drama on both sides of the Atlantic) didn’t deliver a fatal blow to the Trump presidency, it hardly lifted the spectre of Watergate and added fuel to the all-important ‘Russian Connection’ investigation being headed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller. So, who the hell would have thought that Theresa May’s political career could possibly crash and burn before Donald Trump’s? Above all, the sensational, pundit reputation-shredding outcome of Britain’s general election seems to owe much to one special factor.
Pro-Remain young voters mobilised on an unprecedented scale to vote against Theresa May’s vision of a Hard Brexit, and, by doing so, they sent out a message that Brexit itself need not be inviolate and that the UK’s approach to negotiating with the EU will have to change radically. Truly, this was the generation gulf general election like none we’ve seen before.
Indeed, for those of us who have long argued the merits of a second referendum when the terms and impact of Brexit become clear, the reality of a hung parliament must be a cause for considerable celebration. It also offers real hope that pro-Remain Tory MPs will be reinvigorated, rediscover their mojos and take on the eurosceptic fanatics on the party’s right.
But there was another warning light flashing for the Hard Brexiteers through the electoral fog: the fact that Labour won, or held onto, seats that voted Brexit in the EU referendum indicated that voters of various ages were beginning to sense the negative impact of Brexit on their living standards, and that Jeremy Corbyn’s optimistic anti-austerity, ‘for the many not the few’ message had drowned out the ‘strong and stable’ mantra peddled out so ponderously by the prime minister.
Crucially, it would now be absurd for Britain to rush (as scheduled) into Brexit negotiations within days of an election stalemate and with uncertainty the only certainty on the immediate political horizon. The reality is that EU negotiators’ stance was never going to be governed by whether May had a majority of 17 or 117, let alone as the precarious head of a minority government with sharply divergent views on ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ (or, conceivably, doesn’t at all?).
The huge headache for May is that, even if she somehow succeeds in forming a minority government propped up by the DUP, she’ll be outnumbered by parties opposed to both her Brexit strategy and much of her economic and social policies. The same problem would confront her main leadership rivals, including Boris Johnson and David Davis.
The EU leadership would ideally prefer the UK not to depart. So, there could be flexibility on their part over the negotiation timescale and maybe – just, maybe – substantially bigger concessions than those offered to David Cameron, pulled out of the hat to tempt a new British government into a U-turn or, at least, a second referendum when the British people, better informed, can either reaffirm or reject Brexit. In such turbulent, tumultuous political times, nothing, but nothing, is impossible.
But there are other factors too that played into the extraordinary, historic mood music of this election and will test psephologists and political analysts in the days and weeks to come.
– Did the sheer ferocity and personal vilification tactics of the pro-Tory right wing newspapers in their desperation to help May achieve that widely-predicted landslide actually boomerang spectacularly on them and whip up sympathy and support for Corbyn? Certainly there wasn’t just egg on executive faces at the Mail, Sun and Telegraph, but whole omelettes; and, if the media gossip vine is on the money, a grim-faced Rupert Murdoch stalked out of the Times’ election night party immediately after the exit poll came through.
– How did the terrorism and police cuts debate backfire on May and the Tories quite so spectacularly? Many voters were more concerned with her recent track record as home secretary and prime minister than rehashed attacks on Corbyn’s older history on the IRA and Hamas.
– Did May’s dogged ducking of all head to head television debate challenges (another Wizard of Oz strategy) damage her far more than anticipated? (Judging from disillusioned moderate Tories in my own social circle who switched to the Lib Dems or Labour, it most assuredly did).
There can be no doubt that pundits, pollsters, politicians alike (but not, it turns out, the people) massively misjudged the power and populist appeal of Corbyn himself. (As a non-Corbynista lifelong Labour supporter who tactically voted Lib Dem in a pro-Remain constituency narrowly won by the Tories, I count myself among the guilty).
Even as UKIP’s vote collapsed disastrously, Nigel Farage, ever the self-publicist, took to the twittersphere and the TV studio to warn that Britain is ‘staring down the barrel of a second referendum’ while threatening to return to lead the ‘Brexit fight’.
But Farage did offer one telling insight with: ‘Corbyn looked human and comfortable in his own skin. The Prime Minister looked robotic and now she’s lost the confidence of pro-Brexit and pro-Remain Tory MPs alike.’
That’s the real story of June 8….and ultimately, when the electoral dust settles, the one that will decide Britain’s destiny.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former Sunday Mirror editor