Conservative or Labour? In our first-past-the-post system this was the binary choice on offer to the British people on 8 June. Theresa May spelt it out for us on the day she called the election.
“It is a choice between me and Jeremy Corbyn. Britain simply will not get the right Brexit deal if we have the drift and division of a hung parliament.”
Theresa May, 18 Apr 2017
No one was expecting the “drift and division of a hung parliament.” The Conservatives, 20 points ahead in the polls, were looking for a thumping majority to do Brexit their way. The local election results on 4 May reinforced Conservative dominance. With talk of Labour being decimated, their first priority was survival. A one-party state was more likely than a hung parliament.
Yet here we are today, in a hung parliament, embarking on Brexit talks to negotiate our departure from the EU. So, what happened?
In the EU referendum campaign, May had gained the nickname of “submarine May” for her tendency to disappear for long periods. Despite making the snap election all about herself, May then hid away from real voters and refused to participate in public leader’s debates. When she did speak she kept it short, often repeating empty slogans like “strong and stable” and “in the national interest.” As Laura Kuenssberg (BBC) put it to her: “In this election you’ve said as little as possible Prime Minister.”
May also seems to have consulted as little as possible. Consultation didn’t appear to extend to Conservative MPs or even many members of the Cabinet. Decision making seems to have been concentrated in a small group of close advisors who were central to strategy and writing the manifesto.
Not surprisingly, this resulted in a manifesto which wasn’t widely reviewed or tested. The London School of Economics wasn’t impressed: “The manifesto is shot through with internal economic paradoxes.” The voters didn’t think much of it either, particularly the key policy pledge on social care: were the Conservatives planning to take their homes if they got dementia?
Dubbed the “dementia tax” within hours, May U-turned on the policy four days later, reassuring the public that there would be a cap on costs after all (though without specifying the amount). To make matters worse, Mrs May insisted to journalists that “nothing has changed!”, which in turn drew suggestions that she was getting a bit “weak and wobbly.” The PM was being mocked.
Linking May’s hasty volte-face with the issue of Brexit, Jeremy Paxman took up the theme in a TV interview: “If I was sitting in Brussels and I was looking at you as the person I had to negotiate with, I’d think, she’s a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.”
It was domestic matters though, not Brexit, that seemed the chief concern for the public, particularly austerity. On BBC Question Time, a teaching assistant asked why her school was facing a £898 per pupil funding drop and a nurse said her pay packet hadn’t changed since 2009. May’s response was to sidestep the questions: she’d made “hard choices” to get “public spending under control” and there wasn’t a “magic money tree.” She may as well have said “tough.” The deficit, hardly mentioned in the election, was still more important than health and education.
After the Manchester bombing and London attack, questions turned to the cuts of police numbers, cuts of 20000 officers that May had made at the Home Office. Corbyn chided May, saying “you can’t keep people safe on the cheap.”
Labour’s manifesto was clear: we want decent public services so we will increase taxes on the rich and businesses to pay for them. The Conservative approach was the other way around: we want a low tax base so we will continue to cut public spending (more austerity). Labour activists had a more positive programme to sell.
Corbyn campaigned, holding rallies in public, attending all the leaders’ debates, and appealing to the needs of young people. There was an energy and openness that was absent from May’s more controlled and remote campaign … and Corbyn didn’t make any U-turns.
Ironically, for a Brexit election, Brexit hardly got a look in. It still mattered though. Pro-leave voters in working class Stoke heeded May’s hard Brexit rhetoric and supported the Conservatives. Austerity cuts and worse public services was a price worth paying to ensure we left the EU completely.
May’s neglect of remainers over the past year was telling too though. Pro-remain voters in affluent Kensington swung to Labour, opting for higher taxes, better public services, and Labour’s vague Brexit approach that at least suggested a closer relationship with the EU.
And the young turned up: after the leave result in the EU referendum, younger people decided to exercise their democratic right, voting largely for Labour, and contributing to 53% of people voting for parties opposed to a hard Brexit.
Labour may have had an unclear Brexit strategy, but they had something important that the Conservatives didn’t: an overarching vision. The destination for Labour was clear and simple: a more equal society, “for the many, not the few.” The Conservatives would take us “Forward, Together.” Forward to where, nobody could say.
By the time the exit poll was announced at 10pm, it was clear that no party would have a mandate to take us anywhere.
I think May was right to call the election, for two reasons. Firstly, because she hadn’t been voted into office by us. Secondly, we needed a choice on the kind of Brexit we want.
Of course, these weren’t Theresa May’s reasons for calling the election. May wanted to strengthen her hand. Her over-confident approach was to combine her own leadership with a plea for the British public to entrust Brexit to her alone.
“Give me a mandate to lead Britain, give me a mandate to speak for Britain, give me a mandate to fight for Britain, and give me a mandate to deliver for Britain.”
Theresa May, 25 April 2017
Let’s not forget that the Conservatives got the largest vote share (42%) and number of seats (318), without achieving an outright majority. So, the voter’s verdict on May as PM (after nearly a year in office) was “maybe, we’re not really sure to be honest.”
The answer to May’s central plea to “give me a mandate” for a hard Brexit was simple: “No.” In total, 53% (17m people) voted against a hard Brexit, supporting Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrats, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, or the Green Party. Only 43% (14m people) voted Conservative or DUP. Soft Brexit is back on the table.
May had gambled and lost. She knew it, we knew it, and so did the Europeans waiting patiently since March for Britain to get its act together. Dutch MEP Sophia in t’ Veld described an emerging pattern with the Conservatives: “Cameron gambled, lost. May gambled, lost. Tory party beginning to look like a casino.”
“Drift and division” is exactly where we are. Although the tide seems to be turning against a hard Brexit and more austerity, the country remains divided. Meanwhile, parliament is drifting along with a weak minority Conservative party desperately trying to cobble together enough support to get anything done.
With Brexit talks now underway, and just 21 months left on the clock, we have no functioning government and no Brexit plan. No clear aims, objectives, or priorities of what we want as a nation in a post-Brexit UK. After Cameron’s referendum gamble and May’s election gamble, the Conservatives (propped up by the DUP?) are rolling the dice again on the future of Britain in Europe.