Post-Election: May’s Day of Dismay – 9 June 2017

After the surprise election, the shock results.

No Conservative majority of a hundred or more seats, as the party had once hoped — instead, a disastrous loss of twelve constituencies.

Labour’s momentary dream of a power-grab crushed, as Jeremy Corbyn’s latter-day popularity proved too little too late.

The tightest of margins in Fife North East: an SNP hold by just two votes. And Nick Clegg ousted, his Sheffield Hallam seat slipping away from the Liberal Democrats.

“You live by the sword and you die by the sword,” conceded the erstwhile Deputy Prime Minister — perhaps the defining quote of the night. With no party achieving the necessary 326 seats to win, Theresa May will forever rue her great early-election gamble.

From the very beginning, she insisted that a snap election would be a bad idea. In her first major interview as Prime Minister, she told Andrew Marr: “We need that period of time, that stability, to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing and have that election in 2020.”

Polling demonstrated that there were ripe opportunities in the autumn and on into the new year, but Mrs May’s resolve remained steadfast. As late as 20 March, a spokesman was quoted as saying: “There isn’t going to be one. It isn’t going to happen. There is not going to be a general election.”

But then on 18 April, in a move that stunned journalists still half-asleep after the Easter bank holiday weekend, the lectern appeared outside Number 10, and Mrs May strode out to declare that “the government should call a general election, to be held on 8 June”.

An initial question of legality followed — surely the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act prohibited Prime Ministers from dissolving Parliament at whim? Yes, the constitutional lawyers replied, except in cases of a motion of no confidence or a two-thirds majority.

Tory MPs could not ignore the party’s twenty-point lead, and an Opposition that rejected the opportunity to go to the electorate would be laughable. And thus Parliament was prorogued, with a Commons vote of 522 to just 13. Clearly, the 2011 Act now lies in tatters – its ideal, of excluding parliamentary sessions from the influences of popular opinion, has been exposed as ridiculous – and understandably the Conservatives pledged to repeal the Act as part of their manifesto.

More significant points in the Conservative manifesto:

  • Ending the so-called ‘triple-lock’ on state pensions beyond 2020, and means-testing winter fuel payments
  • Increases in spending on NHS and schools budgets, but replacing infants’ free school lunches with free breakfasts
  • Increasing the assets threshold, beyond which patients must pay for their care, from £23,000 to £100,000 but…
    • including within that the value of the individual’s home
    • applying this to home care as well as residential care

This last point proved the undoing of the campaign, with normally reliable Tory voters spooked by what Labour effectually dubbed the ‘dementia tax’. Describing the fallout from policy, Nigel Evans MP today said: “It was an absolute disaster, it was a self-inflicted wound.”

Labour fought a campaign under the slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, and promised to:

  • Scrap university tuition fees
  • Keep the ‘triple-lock’ on state pensions
  • Tax a 50p rate of tax for £123k+ earners, a new 45p rate for £80k+ earners, and levy £330k+ salaries

There were mishaps along the way. Facts and figures got the better of several politicians, with Diane Abbott the most obvious victim. “If we recruit the 10,000 policemen and women over a four-year period,” she told LBC’s Nick Ferrari in an agonising exchange, “we believe it will be about £300,000.” “£300,000 for 10,000 police officers?”, the host replied, incredulous: “What are you paying them?”

A month later, in a Sky interview, she seemed woefully unaware of a terrorism inquiry report. Within days, she stepped down from the Shadow Home Secretary role, citing a period of ill health.

Unveiling Labour’s plans to offer free childcare for two-year-olds, Corbyn stumbled live on Woman’s Hour. “It’s quite troubling,” presenter Emma Barnett said to the party leader: “This is a policy you’re launching today and you don’t know how much it’s going to cost.” The party’s retort? ‘Ah, but we have costings somewhere.’ John McDonnell wrote of Labour’s pledges: “No other party comes close to offering the same level of detail, least of all the Tories – the only numbers to appear in their manifesto are page numbers.”

In the interests of fairness, it is worth stating too that Andrew Mitchell couldn’t state the minimum wage during a bizarre van-based encounter with Victoria Derbyshire. And notable too, the fact that May refused every opportunity to directly debate her opposite numbers. Amber Rudd was instead wheeled out to the BBC’s debate in Cambridge, just two days after the death of her father.

No discussion of the 2017 election can be complete without mention of the two terror incidents that twice suspended campaigning. The first, in Manchester, killed 22 Ariana Grande fans, including seven children. Less than a fortnight later, on the eve of a tribute concert for the victims, a further attack killed eight people at London Bridge and Borough Market. It was an unprecedented backdrop to an unprecedented election.

At the Maidenhead count overnight, the devastation of the Tories’ defeat was painted on May’s face: she looked far from “strong and stable”, tired and weak, and one BBC commentator suggested her heavy makeup may be hiding earlier tears.

Yet she moved fast to secure an ‘understanding’ with the Northern Irish rightwing Democratic Unionists and soon after noon she was en-route to Buckingham Palace. As ever with Her Majesty’s audiences, the outside world can only imagine what was said behind closed doors. But it’s probably safe to assume there was a lack of purring today.

Just 30 minutes later, back at Downing Street, May announced her intention to form a government to “provide certainty and lead Britain forward at this critical time for our country”. The speech’s text was like the usual valedictories delivered from the lectern outside Number 10, as a new period of government begins. But listening to May’s voice, you could hear hints of the humiliation she has suffered overnight.

Today, calls for May’s resignation – from Corbyn, Tim Farron, and some of her own MPs – have gone unanswered. The word from within CCHQ is that now is not the time for a fresh party leadership vote. But any hopes May has of a full five-year term are surely out of the window: there is even discussion of a second election before the end of the year.

In the immortal words of Brenda from Bristol: “You’re joking. Not another one? Oh for God’s sake… I can’t stand this.”

“There’s too much politics going at the moment.”

Well, Brenda: it seems there’s plenty more to come.

Andrew Burdett

Andrew Burdett is a twenty-something from Maidenhead in Berkshire, working for ITV News.