A bitter victory for Theresa May, a glorious defeat for Jeremy Corbyn
Back in April when the General Election was called, my contribution to the discussion was that it proved that everything we thought we knew was wrong. Today, many commentators, campaigners and pollsters are even more wrong. I broke it down then to what it meant for a number of key players. I’ll return to them all, in the same order, as we absorb the results today.
For Theresa May, it is a disaster, pure and simple. Her poor campaign has delivered a victory that feels like no victory at all. Her wide ranging manifesto lies in tatters – described by Nigel Evans MP for Ribble Valley as “dire” – her programme of a reforming Red Tory government now lacks a convincing mandate.
The decision to call an election and tear up the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was born of political calculation, believing her own hype and badly underestimating the resilience and popularity of her rivals.
It has been said too that she has relied too closely on her two closest advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, and too little on her cabinet and the Conservative Party. Once called, the campaign was about her, less about how she would govern. Her u-turn on social care added to the negative perception that she was far from ‘strong and stable’ but was indecisive “Theresa Maybe”.
She called it the Brexit election, but it was barely an issue, hardly mentioned by Labour, while the two parties who are defined by that vote – the Liberal Democrats and UKIP - seem diminished and irrelevant.
For the business of government, there will be disruption. Those of us who work in the Higher Education sector were relieved the Higher Education and Research Bill sneaked through in the pre-recess wash-up. There will have to be a priority given to less contentious and controversial measures that won’t provoke a Tory rebellion. One example, on immigration policy and international students, it is arguable that there is no longer any clear mandate for the Conservative manifesto commitment for keeping international students in the net migration target.
For UKIP, I anticipated the disaster that followed. Paul Nuttall, one of their longest serving leaders this year (I think, I’ve lost count), has now resigned.
What was a factor was the distribution of UKIP’s 4 million insurgent votes from 2015. It seems more returned to a boisterous Labour under Jeremy Corbyn than the Tory campaign expected.
For Labour, it is the glorious defeat. After losing the Copeland by-election and trailing by 20 per cent in the polls, to achieve a result like this is nothing short of a miracle. It is a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s calmness under pressure and to the legions of volunteers and party activists that the uptick happened at all, let alone to the extent it denied Theresa May a majority. Localised campaigns where the MPs clawed back slim majorities were hard fought and attracted door-knockers and leafleters in their thousands. The most telling and popular policy in the manifesto of free stuff was undoubtedly the promise to abolish university tuition fees and bring back grants. It clearly did the trick in Canterbury, Lancaster, the Manchester seats and Remain supporting parts of London.
For the Tory campaign strategists, the push in Northern heartlands wasn’t enough, and they took their eye off the ball in London and parts of the South East, badly misreading the sentiment in places like Canterbury and Swindon. The squeeze on Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott went too far. People stopped listening and it backfired. Even the rhetoric about Corbyn being the terrorist’s friend only worked to a limited degree.
For the SNP, it was a mighty fall. There was only one way to go after 2015 when they swept all before them, but no-one except the impressive Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson expected the losses they suffered. Politics isn’t just about winning elections, it’s also about governing. If people’s lives haven’t improved and they don’t feel things are getting better, then the electorate will take that out on the government.
For the Liberal Democrats, it was a disappointing campaign which failed to deliver the gains they should have achieved in an election where their pro-European purpose was a key issue. Their gains in Scotland, Bath and Twickenham were offset by Nick Clegg’s loss in Sheffield Hallam. It’s a sour end for Clegg who one commentator observed had sacrificed his party in 2010 for the good of the country, while David Cameron had done the opposite in 2016.
For Labour moderates, this now represents an existential crisis. Rather than Corbyn owning a catastrophic defeat, he owns a triumph of sorts. It should have been predictable that Corbyn was rather good at campaigning. Where he has frustrated the parliamentary Labour Party is his inability to effectively oppose in the House of Commons. The fragile government requires scrutiny, especially over Brexit, but even as talented seasoned centrist politicians like Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint indicate they are willing to serve, Corbyn may feel he owes it his loyalists to continue.
Many MPs may point out that Corbyn’s face was on far more Conservative leaflets than Labour ones. That activists from across the party won their own local battles despite Corbyn. What the path to government is from here may be more rallies, more free stuff promised in manfestos, or it may be a gentle combination of the two.
For the devolution project and the Metro Mayors, they have an opportunity to come up with imaginative solutions to the problems that have evaded this failed “Mayist” project. They have the moment to operate outside the claustrophobia of Westminster.