Her predecessor, David Cameron, gambled on a referendum to put an end to talk about leaving the European Union — and lost, setting Britain on a course for isolation and economic upheaval. Prime Minister Theresa May gambled on a quick election to strengthen her hand in negotiating the departure — and failed just as miserably, losing her Conservative majority in Parliament and leaving Britain in political disarray just days before the negotiations are to open. About the only thing clear on the morning after the election was that the pound had declined.
In an era of election surprises, Britain’s didn’t disappoint. Two months ago, when Mrs. May made her call for a snap election, Conservatives held a huge lead over Labour, which was perceived as dead in the water under the old-school, hard-leftist Jeremy Corbyn. Mrs. May was expected to get five years of unchallenged authority. But Labour gained a whopping 29 seats in Parliament, helped by the biggest turnout in two decades, and a triumphant Mr. Corbyn called on Mrs. May to resign. In a parallel surprise, the Scottish National Party suffered a drubbing, effectively ending talk of another referendum on Scottish independence.
Mrs. May lost for many reasons, chief among them a campaign that undermined her reputation as resolute and tough. She rarely ventured outside of scripted Conservative settings, and when she did she was ill-at-ease and tone-deaf. A typical and especially damaging episode was her decision to charge the elderly more for long-term care, a proposal promptly labeled the “dementia tax” that she was compelled to withdraw. Mr. Corbyn, by contrast, confounded all expectations with an aggressive campaign that featured enthusiastic crowds at packed open-air rallies.
Surprisingly, Brexit — the reason Mrs. May called the election and arguably the most important matter confronting Britain, with potentially dire consequences for the economy and for Britain’s place in the world — played only a marginal role in either the Conservative or Labour campaign. Neither Mrs. May nor Mr. Corbyn presented a coherent strategy for leaving the E.U. beyond the vague notion that she was for a hard exit, with a full withdrawal from the common market and an end to the free movement of people, and he for a softer one. Only the Liberal Democrats focused on Brexit, calling for a new referendum, but they emerged with a mere 12 seats.Continue reading the main story
With all but one out of 650 seats in Parliament declared, the Conservatives still have the most with 318, and Mrs. May pledged to form a government in coalition with a small Northern Irish party. She has insisted she will not step down as prime minister, though that could change. Even if she remains, her hand in negotiations with the E.U. will be weakened, with a constant threat of new elections hanging over her head. Mrs. May has achieved the exact opposite of the “strong and stable” government she said she wanted for the enormously complicated and fateful talks, which are to begin in just over a week.
By contrast, the European Union side has been invigorated by the election of a strongly pro-European president in France, Emmanuel Macron, and the likelihood that his new party will win big in the impending parliamentary elections. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany also looks solid in her bid for a fourth election victory in September. E.U. officials in Brussels insisted that dealing with a weakened Britain was not in their interest, but there was no disguising a dollop of Schadenfreude.
A weakened Britain is in nobody’s interest. While the election did not give Mrs. May the strong hand she wanted, it could still benefit Britain if it forces the country’s newly reshuffled political leadership to confront not only the domestic issues that played in the campaign, but also the elephant in the room that went all but unnoticed. June 23 will mark one year since the Brexit referendum; it is time for the government to come clean with the public about what it can realistically expect from the divorce with Europe, and what its strategy will be for the divorce.