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Theresa May’s Losing Gamble     Print Email
By Michael White, London

michaelwhiteWhat’s that, you say? You were so busy with your own problems and Donald Trump’s that you didn’t notice the Brits were staging an impromptu general election? Britain’s rookie Conservative prime minister, Theresa May, invoked one on the spurious grounds that it would give her a stronger mandate to negotiate a satisfactory Brexit divorce with her estranged EU partners and, incidentally, to crush the rival Labour party, led by the apparently hapless Jeremy Corbyn.
 
The EU elite certainly knew what Mrs May was up to and noisily disapproved of time wasting that should have been spent on refining London’s nebulous negotiation strategy to settle outstanding bills and develop new arrangements for trade, migration and security with the EU 27.
 
It was a fair critique when Mrs May surprised everyone – including herself – by announcing on April 18 that, contrary to her previously stated position, she needed a full five year term, not just the three left to her. An extra two would provide a raft that would take her safely through the choppy waters of the formal Brexit moment in March 2019, plus any compromises which might be necessary but unpopular with her nationalistic, Tea Party wing. The EU’s complaint is an even more persuasive one now that the bizarre seven-week campaign, bad-tempered, mean-spirited and punctuated by two murderous terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, has produced a humiliating rejection for May’s gamble.  
 
Far from reinforcing her “strong and stable” regime – the much-repeated mantra of her campaign – it destroyed her slender majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. The result leaves the prime minister with 12 fewer seats, dependent for survival on the votes of 10 Democratic Unionist (DUP) MPs from Northern Ireland – and the parallel absence of their 7 Sinn Fein rivals. SF has won Westminster seats since 1918 but never taken them as a point of historic principle. Survival also depends on the good will of her backbench MPs. Notoriously unsentimental – they toppled even Margaret Thatcher when she became a liability in 1990 – they may quickly end May’s brief premiership. 
 
Almost as startling as May’s self-inflicted wound is the success of Mr Corbyn, the British Bernie Sanders, albeit milder in tone and temper, uncharismatic to the point of secular saintliness. Left-wing, and bearded, a vegetarian, teetotal, thrice-married and a pacifist of pronounced anti-American views, the Labour leader held obvious appeal to the same kind of voters who flocked to Senator Sanders. His appeal to traditional heartland voters, blue collar, patriotic and struggling economically, was less obvious. 
 
In 2015 Mr Corbyn, now 68, was unexpectedly elected as Labour’s third leader in the 8 years since the triple-winner, Tony Blair retired, an idealistic antidote to Clintonesque managerialism and globalisation. As such he was abused by London’s famously partisan conservative press – Murdoch titles to the fore – and written off by most of his parliamentary colleagues, many of them ex-ministers who refused to serve in his team. Corbyn’s advisers were accused of running a core vote strategy, indifferent to the cost of the many promises Labour’s election manifesto made, but determined to cling on to control of the party machine in the event of the expected defeat.
 
It did not work out that way. Yes, Labour lost its third election in succession. But on a healthy 69% turnout Corbyn’s 40% share of the vote was just 2% behind May – who had a lead of up to 20% in many polls just two months earlier – and above the 36% which secured Tony Blair his third victory in 2005, his lustre diminished by the Iraq War. On tax and expenditure, infrastructure projects, the renationalisation of utilities like rail, on welfare benefits and the abolition of £11 bn worth of annual student tuition fees, on health and social care spending, Corbyn adhered to the Trump School of Mathematics: his sums, experts number crunchers protested, added up even less plausibly than those offered by May.
 
But voters who have felt the squeeze of nine years of post-recession austerity were fed up with cuts in public services and public sector pay. They were the principle targets as first Labour, then Conservative – “Tory” in the 17th century slang that survives into the internet age – battled to reduce both the budget deficit and accumulated national debt to more mainstream proportions that were the norm before the bankers crashed the system. Corbyn offered relief in much the same way that advocates of Brexit did in last June’s referendum. Both successes amounted to a populist rejection of orthodoxy.
 
May promised more of the same, plus a Brexit package which prioritised control of UK borders and courts, free of EU rules and rulings. That was implicitly at the expense of trade – which benefits from non-tariff and customs-free access to markets – and migrant-dependent economic growth. It is a Trump argument, assertively nationalistic but economically self-defeating. As with such election campaigns the contradiction went unaddressed. But May’s six year role (2010-16) as Britain’s former home secretary – in charge of homeland security as well as migration - did become a campaign issue after a Islamist suicide bomber killed 22 mostly young people outside Ariana Grande’s Manchester pop concert and three more of President Trump’s “losers” knifed 8 people to death in central London before being shot dead by police. May’s attempt to suggest Corbyn could not be trusted wit security rebounded when questions were asked about her own record.
 
But the symbolic errors which did most harm were her refusal to join TV debates with other party leaders and her U-turn on a hastily concocted plan to resolve the funding crisis in social care for the elderly infirm. Her natural reserve, her lack of emotional range and spontaneity had previously been admired as the unshowy seriousness of a middle-of-the-road conservative pragmatist. Now it came to be seen as cold and insensitive during those one-on-one interviews the PM chose to do.
 
Her rare inter-action with “ordinary” voters during stage-managed and media-restricted campaign visits were judged stilted. The secret of Theresa May turned out to be that there was no secret.
 
As for her proposal to include the value of elderly citizens’ estates – notably their house – in charges made, albeit posthumously, for end-of-life care costs (up to $150,000 a year) in both their own and residential homes, it was quickly dubbed a “dementia tax.” In reality it was more of a dementia lottery – paid only by the unlucky – but it was bold and, in its way, progressive, taking money only by those who could afford it. Such people are core Tory voters, alarmed by this sudden threat to their life’s savings and inheritance plans. The ground had been insufficiently prepared.  Four days after its unveiling the policy was amended. May compounded the error by saying “nothing has changed.” Plainly it had.
 
“Strong and stable” was starting to look “weak and wobbly.” That impregnable April lead in the polls began to evaporate. Yet pollsters, still smarting from sampling errors made in both 2015 and in Brexit vote, persisted in believing May would enhance her Commons majority from 17 to around 50, less than the 100+ originally predicted, but enough to justify the effort and the reputational damage. Corbyn meanwhile was doing his own thing, accused of talking only to the faithful but also getting more unmediated access to wavering voters. 
 
It was becoming a presidential campaign, the focus on the two main party leaders even though neither looked very presidential. May’s campaign literature and speeches focussed mostly on her, not her party or her team. Corbyn’s candidates often barely mentioned him. Smaller parties, which always struggle to get exposure, failed to make the impact they had expected. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), hardline champions of Brexit in 2016, melted away. The Liberal Democrats – David Cameron’s coalition partners in 2010-15 – positioned themselves as champions of a second EU referendum to reverse the Brexit vote. May wooed blue collar Labour and UKIP voters, all seeking tactical switchers on what was supposed to be the great issue of the campaign. 
 
No academic grandee will be able to say for a while that “campaigns don’t matter, most voters have already made up their minds.” As with Brexit and the US presidential race of 2016 this campaign changed a lot.
 
In the event it may fairly be argued that they all lost. May got a 6% greater share of the vote than Cameron in 2015, but lost 12 vital seats, Corbyn did much better than his critics predicted against one of the worst Tory campaigns in recent memory. But he lost. The Lib Dems, shattered by their coalition with Cameron, recovered modestly to double their Westminster representation (once 63) to 12, hardly a game-changer. In the process their ex-leader, former deputy PM, Nick Clegg, lost his seat. In Celtic Wales, Labour survived predicted disaster. In Celtic Northern Ireland, both DUP and SF, its estranged rival (and “partners” in the currently-suspended devolved Belfast assembly) consolidated their hold and, accidentally, their leverage over May. Expect more new roads and other pork barrel projects there, though a “soft” EU border with the Irish Republic is the main prize if one can be achieved.
 
But the most startling intimation of political mortality, apart from May’s own, came in Scotland. Here the all-conquering Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), governing in the quasi-federal Edinburgh parliament since 2007, took a startling 54 of the 57 Scots seats in 2015 – only to lose 21 of them again on Thursday night. Since last year’s Brexit vote, Scotland’s canny first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had been angling for a second independence referendum (the SNP lost by 55% to 45% in 2014) on the grounds that Scotland – unlike England and Wales – voted to remain in the EU. It now turns out that some Scottish voters prefer Brexit to independence, the 310-year union with England over uncharted waters. One of the night’s casualties was Alex Salmond, the face of the independence campaign in 2014 and the man who once cut golf club deals with Donald Trump – and regretted it. That second Indy ballot now looks more remote.
 
But as elsewhere upshot is uncertainty in all directions. Will the formal Brexit talks, due to start in mid-June, have to be postponed while Mrs May consolidates her position or departs? Will that position have to be modified to reflect her new political weakness? If so, will she adopt a tougher stance (“no deal is better than a bad deal”) under populist pressure from the right or a more emollient one, more realistic to Britain’s increasingly isolated and introverted circumstances? Will May’s party problems prove insuperable and lead to Mr Corbyn forming his own minority government in informal “progressive alliance” with Liberal Democrats and assorted left-wing nationalists, his old friends at Sinn Fein included.
 
Britain is not ungovernable, a fashionable trope in the turbulent 1970s. But it has just voted to make government much harder at a difficult juncture via an electoral verdict few expected. The Germans, patiently waiting to negotiate Brexit with as little damage as possible to either side, have realised that neither the Brits nor the Americans are now the reliable allies they have been since World War II. They have another of their much loved long new words to cover it. “TrumpundBrexit” roughly translates as “stuff happens.” It certainly isn’t going to be dull.
 
Michael White is a former Washington correspondent and political editor of the Guardian in London