Theresa May’s election blunder a sobering example of leadership latching onto the wrong message
May’s perhaps-fatally wounded government must in a week’s time begin engagement on a Brexit deal that will do least harm
In April, after Theresa May announced her shock general election, I called it a “political masterstroke … that made me feel that all is not lost for Britain in the Brexit process”. Whoops. Excuse me while I wipe the egg off my face.
I went on: “If she wins her snap election with a historic landslide on June 8, as most pundits expect, May will have achieved multiple Houdini miracle escapes at one go.” She would get off her back the hardline Brexit fringe that was threatening to hold her to ransom in the exit process; she would win herself the flexibility to make the difficult and perhaps unpalatable compromises that would inevitably have to be made with the European Union in the exit negotiations.
As May put it at the time: “Every vote for the Conservative Party will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain.”
Now segue forward to this weekend. What on earth happened in the 50 days between April 18 and June 8 as she has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? The best single summary for me came from Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times, who traced “a complex story that takes in her own limitations as a leader, the surprise vigour of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the awakening of young voters who see EU exit as a menace to their future, public weariness of tight fiscal policy and a new national appetite for upheaval”.
Certain things can be concluded with simple starkness. May called the election to win endorsement for her Brexit strategy and was resoundingly rebutted. To twist her words in April, “every vote against the Conservative Party has made her weaker”. No Houdini miracle escapes here.
If a Parliamentary majority of 10 was insufficient to give her the negotiating authority she needed, how much harder now with 13 fewer seats, a hung parliament with a fragile marriage of convenience with 10 Northern Irish MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party, a jauntily empowered Labour Party and the internal Conservative Party recriminations about to begin?
Quite what mandate she now has in negotiations that are supposed to start on Monday next week must be unclear even to her. EU negotiators, perplexed and impatient to begin work on perhaps the saddest and most challenging negotiation of their lifetimes, must be wondering who from Britain will arrive, what negotiating brief they will arrive with and what possible confidence the EU can have that British negotiators can deliver on their negotiated commitments. Confidence must also be low that May or even the same government will be in power in March 2018, when the deal is due to be sealed.
From afar, as one of those “citizens of nowhere” so derided by May, I can only scratch my head in appalled disbelief that an internal Conservative Party squabble with a nasty right-wing rump of the party could have had such catastrophic consequences for the people of Britain, and indeed Europe.
Historians will surely write very dimly of the David Cameron and May governments for the widespread harm they have gratuitously inflicted – harm that is still unfolding and may look even worse in 12 months’ time than it does even today.
Amid the confusion, another simple message emerges: voting behaviour in a referendum with a single simple question (some would say the question was far too simple) does not mirror voting behaviour in full national elections. Nick Timothy and May’s tiny band of trusted advisers tricked themselves into thinking this election could be waged as a second Brexit referendum. Instead, they discovered that their own internal Conservative Party concerns about immigration and decision-making in Brussels did not match the wide public’s concerns – which in the 10th year of recession since the 2008 financial market crash are focused on stagnating wages, unemployment, a loss of job security and anxiety over savage cuts to health care and old-age care.
Electoral missteps on financing health care for the elderly undermined support from traditional elderly supporters of the Conservative Party – supporters who had come out in huge numbers to support the Brexit campaign.
May’s team also catastrophically underestimated the angry power of Britain’s young, who as a group voted solidly against leaving Europe in last year’s Brexit referendum. Sixty per cent of these voted Labour last week. More than one million 18- to 24-year-olds registered to vote last week and an estimated 66 per cent actually voted – more than one-third of them for the first time. This turnout compared with just 43 per cent in the last 2015 general election.
Whatever the overall merits of democratic political systems, it is infamously difficult to discover with certainty why a voter chooses one politician or party over another, or what messages or priorities they want to deliver to their political leaders. May’s catastrophic election provides a sobering example of what happens when leaders latch onto the wrong messages. Brexit may be close to Conservative politicians’ hearts, but it lumbers low among the priorities of most British voters.
I still believe the Brexit decision was a mistake and will in net terms harm the British economy, but this belief counts for little as Britain’s Conservative government nurses wounds from Thursday’s ill-conceived and ill-executed election. So, what now?
There are still a few romantic optimists who cling onto the belief that the Brexit process can be reversed – perhaps through an eventual second referendum. But sadly, these belong to a romantic minority.
The grim, sad reality is that May’s perhaps-fatally wounded government must in a week’s time begin engagement on a Brexit deal that will do the least harm. Who knows how those negotiations will progress and who will sort them successfully by March 2018.
Hopefully, the “hard Brexit” option being nurtured by May has now crashed and burned – along with it at least a few of the 759 international agreements that may need to be redrafted in one of history’s most technically challenging divorce settlements ever conceived. But what a “soft Brexit” will look like, who knows?
If ever British people needed to cling firmly to the mantra of “keep calm and carry on”, it must surely be now.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view