In the hours before the polls closed, ominous rumours were sweeping through Tory circles. Tales of high turnout in Labour areas. Seats coming into play that no one had imagined. But it’s fair to say that even the most pessimistic Conservatives weren’t expecting anything like this.
This morning, we’re still trying to digest the results. But it’s already clear that this vote has created many, many more losers than winners. Here are just a few of them.
Obvious one, this. She called an election to enlarge her majority. Instead, she will have missed the widest open goal since Diana Ross at the World Cup. The question when the election was called was whether the Tories could drive their majority up towards three figures. The idea that it could actually fall – or even vanish altogether – was unimaginable. Apparently, she has no intention of resigning. But if she stays, it will be as the wounded, humiliated captain of a mutinous ship.
Throughout the election campaign, the silence of the Labour moderates has been almost deafening. The game plan was obviously to sit back and let Corbyn run the campaign of his dreams – to give him the rope to hang himself, rather than being accused of having betrayed St Jeremy by his angry supporters.
Now, Corbyn and Corbynism are secure – and people like Chuka Umunna are suddenly suggesting that they might serve in his Shadow Cabinet (or even Cabinet…) after all. Still, given that his first act when the election was called was to try to re/deselect his moderate MPs, it’s not hard to guess what the future holds for them in the long term.
With Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson clutching their P45s, Nicola Sturgeon’s argument that the Scots are mad keen for a second run at independence looks… well, almost as wrong as Theresa May’s argument that the voters were bursting to give her a mandate on Brexit. The SNP can argue that they are still the largest party – and they will certainly have far more influence in Westminster. But when it comes to IndyRef 2, a 15 per cent swing against Sturgeon means the wheels are firmly off the bandwagon. (And on a side note: the Tories should be on their knees thanking God for the existence of Ruth Davidson, to give them at least the hope of forming a government.)
Another obvious one. Before the election, everyone was joining forces to jeer at YouGov’s model, with its suggestion of a hung parliament. YouGov eventually backed off from its more optimistic prediction. But alongside Survation, it still looks like the survivor at the end of a particularly brutal episode of Game of Thrones.
There was an extraordinary press release from the Electoral Commission this week, listing the donations to the major parties in the final stages of the campaign. It showed not a single significant donation to UKIP. As the party’s thumping losses in South Thanet and Boston & Skegness showed – on top of its dire performance elsewhere – the party’s collapse is not just electoral: in the wake of the Brexit vote, UKIP today has no money, no purpose, and precious few voters. Speaking of which…
Theresa May called the election, ostensibly, to get a mandate to carry out the Brexit negotiations. Instead, she – or whoever becomes Prime Minister – will be hostage to objections from all sides as the bargaining proceeds. If, indeed, it proceeds: we are now in a bizarre situation where a nation which is still mostly supportive of Brexit will have a Parliament which is still made up predominantly of Remainers.
Already, many people are arguing that “hard Brexit” – including a departure from the single market and customs union – is dead. But the problem with leaving the EU, as it has been since the beginning, is that you can get a popular majority for Brexit itself, but not for any particular form of it. With May in charge with a 60+ majority, that wouldn’t have mattered. Now it very much does.
The mainstream media
The traditional Tory newspapers called Jeremy Corbyn an apologist for terror. They pointed out – rightly – that he and his team would lead Britain to ruin, that their every action since coming into politics proved their unfitness for office. (In fairness, we at CapX also had our say on that score.) In the wake of the Brexit vote, I wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review that it proved the power of old people and old media. Theresa May’s social care policy upset the first – and the power of the second appears to be on the wane. Matched, perhaps, by the self-selecting (and often self-deluding) tribes of Facebook.
The pound, the economy and austerity
The pound plunged immediately after the exit poll was released. No surprises there. It may come back up if the prospects of a hard Brexit recede. But there is a broader point here. Whatever administration emerges from this vote, it is likely that it will not have a substantive majority. That means that any truly difficult measures – ie ones that lead a significant number of people to feel they are losing out – will simply not be brought in.
David Cameron and George Osborne increasingly found that the appetite for austerity had waned even among their own backbenchers. A hung parliament is unlikely to swallow any similarly tough measures. Not least because so many people voted for a Labour manifesto that promised freebie after freebie. Jeremy Corbyn is this morning proclaiming the defeat of austerity – and even John Redwood is agreeing with him, arguing that this vote was about the public services rather than Brexit. Yet as Liam Byrne wrote all those years ago, there’s still no money left.
In 2015, the story of the night was (Scotland apart) a uniform swing. English and Welsh voters took a look at Ed Miliband, with the grinning figures of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon lurking behind him, and decided that they couldn’t risk it.
In 2017, the picture is different. Brexit appears to have realigned British politics – or rather broken it into separate jagged pieces. Labour did extremely well in “Remainia”, but far less so in Leaveland beyond. Part of the country believes Jeremy Corbyn is a living saint, another part that he is the devil incarnate. There is less consensus, and less commonality, than ever.
The Tory voters who stayed home were precisely those targeted by David Cameron – liberal, metropolitan types who had gone for Blair in 1997. May’s calculation (which, to be fair, I entirely agreed with) was that they could be kept onside while the party focused its energy on marching on to UKIP’s terrain. That has not panned out, to say the least. It may be that this is a temporary, Brexit-related blip. But it could also be that by abandoning graduates for workers, May has driven a stake into the heart of the Cameron coalition.
It is unfair to pick on the Wizard of Oz – reports from the Tory campaign suggest a serious case of too many chiefs, as opposed to the command and control that delivered in 2015. Indeed, the social care policy was one that he (and Fiona Hill) reportedly opposed.
But it is clear that the campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn did not work as planned, and that the highly personalised campaign, built on relentless message discipline, that worked so well for Cameron (“the long-term economic plan” et al) did not wash for “strong and stable” May. People mocked Corbyn for holding endless rallies in safe seats – but a highly personalised campaign based on direct mail and Facebook targeting doesn’t seem to have done much better.
The Lib Dems
Oh, the irony. Tim Farron and his team have seen their basic argument vindicated: Remainer indignation would be a powerful force at this election. The problem was that those Remainers backed Labour – even though there’s a very good argument that it was Jeremy Corbyn’s actively obstructive conduct during the Brexit campaign that delivered so many Labour voters to the Leave side. (Corbyn and John McDonnell, remember, have always hated the EU for being a vehicle to undermine workers’ rights.) Yes, the Lib Dems gained a few seats. But losing Nick Clegg and Sarah Olney – if only by 45 votes – was not part of the plan.
“Who governs Britain?” was Edward Heath’s famous question. The voters’ answer today was simple: “None of you, if we can help it.” But in the process, they have delivered what looks remarkably like the fabled “coalition of chaos”. With the Lib Dems once bitten by coalition and twice shy, and the manifestos of the DUP and SNP a presently unknown quality, many people appear to feel that we’ll have no choice but to re-run the whole thing in a few months’ time – or put up with a lengthy period of unstable government.
We at CapX urged our readers to vote against Labour in order to put the hard Left back on the fringes where it belongs. Instead, it has been emboldened. More broadly, at the moment when Britain really did need strong and stable leadership, it could be presented with an ungodly mess.
Not only does this leave Brexit hanging in the balance, but it leaves us further away than ever from the kind of policies which would actually deliver greater national prosperity. True, Theresa May’s flirtation with Milibandism does not seem to have been rewarded at the ballot box – but as Ryan Bourne pointed out on CapX, this is an election at which proper economics has been pushed further to the margins than ever.
This article was originally published in the wake of the exit poll, and has been revised and updated this morning