Yesterday’s British general election was supposed to be a coronation for Theresa May, the strict and autocratic Conservative prime minister, who grabbed the party leadership last year after the Brexit referendum result and immediately turned herself from being a Remainer in the European Union debate to a hard-line Brexiteer leaver.
Instead the election has enabled Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labor Party, to emerge as a serious national politician and not the leftist rabble-rouser that has been his image for decades. He is being metaphorically crowned by his party and its MPs, many of whom had tried to dump him, while May is fighting to remain prime minister by forming a new government with the support of Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionists.
“If I lose just six seats I will lose this election and Jeremy Corbyn will be sitting down to negotiate with Europe,” May tweeted on May 20, trying to scare voters with a reference to the Brexit negotiations that are due to begin in Brussels in 11 days’ time.
The “I” in that remark graphically illustrates how hubris led her to stage the election as an endorsement of her personal leadership, with ministers and MPs tagging along behind.
Theresa May announcing she is forming a government, having visited the Queen in Buckingham Palace
She has in fact lost 13 seats from the Conservative Party score in the 2015 general election, winning 318 yesterday, whereas Labor has won 262, up an astonishing 30 on the last election. A party needs 326 to have a working majority, which is why May is talking to the Democratic Unionists who have 10 seats, though even then she will only have a tiny majority of six.
She need not have called an election because she had a working majority in the House of Commons with 331 seats compared with Labor’s 232 and the third major party, the Scottish Nationalists (which did badly yesterday) with 56.
The shock result means that May’s unbending approach for what is known as a hard Brexit in negotiations with the European Union may have to be softened – possibly, some commentators believe, even including a bid to stay in the EU’s single market that she had rejected. The government will also be under pressure to give Parliament a bigger say in the EU negotiations and to ease its approach both on economic austerity and on immigration barriers (that will be good news for India in particular).
May will have to soften her style and consult her ministers and others instead of relying on just two advisors huddled in her 10 Downing Street office, and also adopt a less confrontational approach with EU leaders. She called the election to strengthen her standing in European capitals, but she has been dramatically weakened by the result.
She should have learned from one of her predecessors, Sir Edward Heath, who picked a fight with coal miners in 1974 and called a snap election on the theme of “who governs Britain?” Such sudden elections are not popular and he lost, just as May did yesterday with a similar question linked to Brexit.
Corbyn this morning declared: “Politics has changed. Politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before. What’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics.”
It was widely assumed that when people came to vote they would shy away from his Labor Party and vote Conservative for safety, but many didn’t, just as they didn’t shy away from voting for Brexit last year and for Donald Trump in America. The swing in the vote came from a desire for change and a rejection of May.
The youth vote was especially important, wooed partly by Corbyn’s promise to eliminate university student fees. The first evidence of turnout levels among younger voters is that it rose 12 points to 56 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds above 2015 figures according to an “exit poll” reported by The Guardian – 60 percent of under-35s and 66 percent of 18 to 24-year olds said they had voted Labor, 36 percent of them being first-time voters.
I have been amazed in the six weeks that I have been in the UK, away from my base in India, how increasingly unpopular May became, even among traditional Conservative voters, and how respect grew for Corbyn, even among people who detest his politics.
‘Strong and stable’
She was tense and unbending from the start of the campaign, repeatedly claiming that she, and she alone, would provide Britain with the “strong and stable government” that it needed in the Brexit negotiations, without ever saying how she would do it. She rarely acknowledged the role of her fellow ministers and even seemed to forget that Conservative MPs also played a role. She was aloof and evaded questions, speaking mostly to careful selected audiences and avoiding television confrontations with other party leaders.
“It’s almost as if Theresa May looked at Hilary’s campaign and said let’s do that,” wrote Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times, referring to Hilary Clinton’s defeat by Trump.
There were two deadly terror attacks in Manchester and London during the campaign but she and her ministers refused to acknowledge that cuts in police forces that had removed 20,000 police from the streets might have reduced the chances of detecting attacks before they happened.
“Her scarce TV performances have been wooden and repetitive. Journalists following her on the campaign trail have become frustrated by her stonewalling tactics,” said The Guardian, quoting a tv journalist who accused her “of responding to questions with “clichés and platitudes.”
Corbyn on the other hand was friendly to questioners and was discursive, sometimes entertaining, and always serious and appealing. A TV commentator put it well when he said two nights ago that Corbyn had “relaxed into the election campaign” as it progressed, which enabled him to come across as a genuine person and even a trustworthy national politician. He and his colleagues also paraded a range of social and other policies that appealed to voters.
May’s main political – and personal – problems seem to stem from her childhood with a father who was a stern Church of England vicar and told her to decide what was right and stick to it. “My father encouraged me to, whatever job I did, just go get on with it and do my best,” she said in one interview.
“I think you have to believe in what you’re doing.” In another interview, she discussed her strong faith and politics. “That’s key. If you do believe you’re doing the right thing, that gives you resilience.” Asked if that was a “moral” approach, May added: “I suppose there is something in terms of faith. “I am a practicing member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do. “It’s not like I’ve decided to do what I’m going to do and I’m stubborn. I’ll think it through, have a gut instinct, look at the evidence, work through the arguments, because you have to think through the unintended consequences.”
Yet when it comes to the crunch she has abandoned that approach, dumping her strongly held views and doing U turns, thus revealing herself as a politician who is so focused on sticking to her line that she is incapable of doing he political footwork needed to see her way out of problems.
The Financial Times has listed 10 of her reversals, most importantly that she said repeatedly she would not call a general election, then suddenly changed her mind.
Earlier, in March, she allowed her chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond to reverse, after a week of criticism, a budget announcement that self-employed workers would pay higher national insurance contributions, breaching a promise in the 2015 Conservative manifesto not to increase the tax.
Then she fumbled over the Conservative manifesto that said aged rich people requiring care in their homes would be obliged to pay for it, unless they had less than £100,000 in assets including the family home. After it was quickly dubbed a “dementia tax” she announced after just four days that care payments would be capped, and then repeatedly refused to admit she had changed anything,
So the strong leader was no longer so strong and steadily, Corbyn won hearts and minds.
The British media generally backed May and did everything it could to rubbish Corbyn, reminding readers of his ultra-leftist rebellious past on issues like the Northern Irish IRA battles and Britain’s armed incursions into foreign countries, notably most recently Syria.
The Economist was so appalled by both Corbyn and May that it recommended its readers a week ago to vote for the small and fading Liberal Democrats “as a down-payment for the future” because “the leaders of both main parties have turned away from a decades-old vision of an open, liberal country.”
But The Economist political columnist excelled himself this week with an article headed “The country will soon go into bat against Brussels with one of its weakest teams in decades,” adding:
“The best performer in the campaign, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor leader, is a 68-year-old crypto-communist who has never run anything except his own mouth. Theresa May, the Tory leader, tried to make the election all about herself and then demonstrated that there wasn’t much of a self to make it about. As for Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, he looked more like a schoolboy playing the part of a politician in an end-of-term play than a potential prime minister.”
The Farron remark ignored the fact that the magazine had recommended voting for his party, but the anonymous columnist did have a point. Corbyn has no administrative experience and May is an egotist who does not understand the basics of political leadership.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent, who blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com. He decided to cover Delhi from London this week.