james debate
james debate

Monday 12 June 2017

Almost exactly one year ago after the Brexit vote, The Ephemeric wrote that David Cameron's self-destruction was a folly of historic proportions, a humiliating own-goal that would ensure Cameron went down as one of the great punchlines of British politics. Well it hasn't quite taken Theresa May a year to outdo her predecessor. David Cameron can breathe a sigh of relief, because this latest blunder will take some beating.

theresa may defeat disaster joke humiliation own-goal brexit jeremy corbyn uk general election 2017

What just happened?
When Theresa May called a snap general election two months ago, it was a little bit of a flip-flop on her part seeing as she had said unequivocally on numerous occasions that she would not call an election, reasonably making the case that now was not the time for political games. Still, with the Conservative party some 25 points ahead in the polls at the time, May evidently had decided that she could live with being branded a political opportunist, so long as it helped cement her authority in Westminster.

Indeed such a polling margin was practically unprecedented in British politics. People were expecting the Tories to expand their somewhat meagre 5 seat majority by as many as 100 seats, taking their MP total in excess of 400. There was no question of whether the Tories would win the election, but whether they would expand their majority by a lot, or a little. So when that exit poll dropped on Thursday, showing that the Tories would not in fact expand their majority at all, but lose seats, and lose their majority, it sent a nuclear shockwave through British politics.

This was an election that did not need to be called at all. No one wanted another election. The Tories already had an outright majority, their first in 20 years no less. Theresa May threw all that away in just a few months as leader of the party. It's an astonishing tale of hubris and comeuppance, and one which will certainly see Theresa May go down as one of the shortest serving, and most ridiculed, Prime Ministers in UK history.

So how did this happen? How did the Tories throw away such a commanding lead in such a short time? And what lessons can they take away from this crushing defeat?

Were the polls wrong?
First let's talk about that unassailable polling lead. Even though the polls showed a 25 point lead, it was never actually as solid as that sounds. To begin with, you have to assume that just a few months into the job, Theresa May was still experiencing a bit of a honeymoon period in the opinion polls, a very widely studied effect. Then there was the unusually high number of undecided voters on the polls, almost 1 in 3 on some polls. That is astoundingly high. A lead of 20% means much less when at least 30% haven't even decided who to vote for yet, you can't possibly make an accurate prediction from that. Honestly, that no one in the Conservative party picked up on such basic polling issues suggests either an incredible lack of expertise, or an incredible lack of communication between staff.

But the biggest single reason for the polling upset is this: the pollsters themselves didn't trust their numbers. Polls were showing a close race between the Tories and Labour for weeks, but pollsters didn't believe that young people would actually show up to the extent they were finding, so they fudged the numbers.

They were wrong, young people showed up, and in record numbers. Londoners showed up in record numbers. Angry Remain voters showed up in record numbers, and they got their revenge on the Conservative party that has spent the past year ridiculing and ignoring their opinions.

Was this a Brexit election?
As a Remain voter, it would be opportunistic and easy for me to come out at this moment and say that this was a second referendum on Brexit, so instead I'll let Theresa May herself say it. The leader of the Conservative party called this a "Brexit election", said that Brexit was "on the ballot". So you know what, I'll take her at her word on that, and boy have the voters spoken clearly. They reject Theresa May's vision of extreme Brexit.

The numbers show this quite clearly. Conservative vote share collapsing in Remain-voting areas, losing 10% share in super conservative Chelsea, and losing Kensington (!) to Labour. To my American friends, the Tories losing Kensington is like Trump losing Alabama. Theresa May's party has been routed in former Conservative strongholds that voted Remain. Add to this the decimation of the UKIP voter share, and the gain of seats by pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats, and it really is undeniable; this was indeed a Brexit election, and the voters have told May in no uncertain terms they don't like what they're seeing.

This is not just the view of the left-wing. Former Tory MP George Osborne says this election threw hard Brexit "in the rubbish bin". Several prominent party members have now come out as recognising hard Brexit as leading the Conservative party to "political ruin". The Tories had inexplicably forgotten just how barely the Brexit vote was won (and not even the hard Brexit they've been pursuing mind you, but a generic insert-your-own-fantasy-Brexit) and ignored any voice of dissent. That has cost them dearly now.

Other factors?
But in fairness, Brexit alone was not the only reason for defeat. There was the disastrous Tory manifesto, including such crowd pleasers as dementia tax and taking away free school lunches from children. There was the way that Theresa May refused to attend political debates, and seemingly hid herself away from the public in the final weeks of the campaign. It's that hubris again, thinking you can just avoid the voters and have their support, thinking you can propose horribly abusive policies and expect the average voter to either be unaware or ignorant of what you're doing, and it's just weak leadership to avoid responsibility as May has repeatedly done. This was a disastrously run campaign from start to finish.

And then there was the Trump effect. Theresa May has had a Donald Trump problem for a long time, but the final straw came in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on London when Donald Trump launched his appalling attack on the city and its Mayor. Theresa May said nothing. She would not stand up for her own people when attacked, even in the wake of this horrific act of violence. This is an utter disgrace, and even now she continues to push for a State visit for the President.

The sad fact is that Theresa May's blind Brexit obsession makes her pretty much dependent on Trump as a trade partner, so she'll tolerate whatever he does, no matter how distasteful, no matter how much it betrays her own people. It's an embarrassing and subservient relationship, one which begs the question: if your economic policy is dependent on you abandoning your ideals and principles, and sucking up to a hostile authoritarian, maybe it's not a policy worth pursuing.

All of this together paints a clear picture. An unpopular Prime Minister so blindly and foolhardily set on her destructive Brexit that she ignores her own people, that she refuses to debate or show even a modicum of respect to the Democratic process, that she refuses to stand up for her country or its ideals, that she betrays the dignity of her own people for the sake of bottom-feeding off a hostile foreign leader.

So what lessons can the Tories take from this?

  • For the love of God, stop calling elections that you don't need, it clearly never ends well;
  • Don't force on us a Brexit with probably not even 52% support as if it had 90% support;
  • If you want the job, show up for the damn interview;
  • We aren't fucking idiots, you won't win our support with lame catchphrases and evasive answers.
Sadly I'm not convinced that Theresa May has learned anything from this disaster. In public at least she has continued down the path of denial, insisting that all is well, and that the entire country is united behind her "strong and stable" patchwork of a Government, and excited about the opportunities of Brexit, despite how we actually voted. Her controversial deal with the devil, an alliance with the extremist, racist, homophobic, possibly terrorist DUP in order to cling on to power, will surely not win her any new converts. So mark my words, her party is rightly furious, and the moderates and Scottish conservatives are horrified by association with the DUP. Theresa May's days in power are numbered.

In the meantime, the people of Britain have turned out in record numbers and exercised their democratic right with clear voice. They have reminded all politicians that we are not ignorant fools, that we can not be taken for granted, and that we demand responsible, considered actions from our leaders. It's time for the Prime Minister to start listening.

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