It is, quite simply, an astonishing result.
Prime Minister Theresa May wanted desperately to make Brexit the central issue of the snap election she called. She may have got her wish – and a lesson in being careful what you wish for.
Although opinion surveys suggested the Tories could return to power with a hugely increased majority, the campaign took place just as the economic impact of last year’s referendum result was starting to bite. Inflation is rising, real wages are declining, and the economy has slowed markedly. Faced with the inevitable government cuts that would result, the Conservative manifesto suggested some cuts to pensions and health care for retirees.
Needless to say, that didn’t go over too well with this core Tory constituency. As their enthusiasm to vote inevitably waned, young voters, who dislike Brexit as uch as they like Labour, were apparently keen to make amends for their apathy in last year’s referendum. As happened in last year’s Democratic primaries, a stampede of youth activism triggered an earthquake, stunning the political establishment.
In addition, the Tories and their allies in the press committed a simple, but stupid error. Setting out to demonise the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, they wholly succeeded in drawing an image in the public mind of a man who made Lenin look like a country vicar. As the campaign began, Tory leads in opinion polls were far into the double digits. Mrs. May, who went into the election with a slender majority, was expected to score – to use the technical term Britons employ — a stonking majority.
However, the former Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, who had been on track to win his own election two years ago, could have warned the Tories about the dangers of succeeding too well in this kind of negative politics. Back in 2015, Canada’s Tories had successfully portrayed the Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, as a vapid lightweight – one devastating attack attack picturing an imaginary focus-group which, searching for something notable to say about him, could only come up with ‘nice hair.’ This image stuck in Canadian minds, but created an obvious risk. All Mr. Trudeau had to do was was look half-way competent – and he more than pulled that off in the campaign – and he would exceed expectations.
The rest, we know, is history (as is Mr. Harper). Theresa May’s campaign slogan of ‘strong and stable leadership’ was meant to contrast her steady hands with Jeremy Corbyn’s loony leftism. All Mr. Corbyn had to do was look moderately competent, and disgruntled Labour voters were going to come back to the fold. He did that, and more. Meanwhile Theresa May’s own campaign committed a number of own-goals and gaffes which made her strong and stable leadership mantra look a little laughable by comparison. Poor Mrs. May will now join David Cameron in British history’s hall of infamy – that hall stuffed with politicians beset by infamously bad judgment. She’s done the equivalent of running a 100-metre sprint with a 20-metre head-start against a bloke with a gimpy leg, and still finishing in a draw.
After Donald Trump’s election last year, populists like Nigel Farage imagined that Brexit had sparked a fire which was now going to rage across the West, and predicted far-right parties would topple one European country after another. But earlier this year, I wondered if Mr Trump’s election was going to have the opposite effect. Now, with results in from the Netherlands, France and now Britain, we can conclusively say the populist tide is going into reverse. Nigel Farage’s own party, UKIP, collapsed last night. Mrs May will no doubt be slapping her head that she ever flew to Washington to hold Mr. Trump’s hand before the cameras early this year. Nigel Farage may have liked it, but it may well have energised Labour voters.
It’s hard to overtate the change which has taken place in British politics. A Labour leader and platform that would have been considered unimaginably radical just a few years ago has now been approved by a considerable portion of the electorate. The similarity to Bernie Sanders’s narrative is obvious, as is the energy driving the leftward tilt: young voters, marginalised for years by Conservative policies that put most of the burden on their shoulders while protecting pensioners, and who have cried ‘enough.’ We are living in interesting times.
Where does this leave Brexit? Well, nobody has much of a mandate for anything at the moment. There was always bound to be a lot of uncertainty once negotiations with the European Union began, uncertainty which would make the economy more fragile. That uncertainty has just been compounded. So if you’re thinking of planning a British holiday, now would be a good time to look at tickets. The pound will remain weak, the economy will slump, and London’s notoriously-expensive prices will finally start to look reasonable to foreign visitors.