To paraphrase the statement in the language of the imperial court with which Japan euphemistically announced its unconditional surrender in 1945, “Events in the course of the election have today taken a turn not necessarily to the advantage of the Conservative Party.”
The Theresa May handbook on How to Run an Election contains some unique insights. First, select a time when the public has recently been blitzed by a general election, a referendum and local polls, then spring a patently unnecessary general election on them for blatant party advantage. Having caught your opponents unawares, squander that advantage by holding a seven-week campaign, allowing generous time for public sentiment to change and your opponents to rally their resources.
When the anti-Tory youth vote is being massively mobilized, ambush the opposing “grey” vote on which you depend with an inarticulately presented policy on care for the elderly that will scare them witless. Then let the strongest card and supposed pretext for the election – Brexit – disappear from your campaign radar. And so on. There was one mistake Theresa May did not make – she did not invade Russia – but otherwise she ticked every box that history’s hubristic losers have traditionally chalked up.
Lest anybody think these remarks represent wisdom after the event or post-election groupthink of the anti-May lynch mob, here is exhibit A, from the column written by this commentator for Reaction just after the election was called, on 19 April: “This irresponsible gamble, inviting a chaotic outcome from an enraged and uniquely unpredictable electorate, could produce a hung parliament – unlikely but conceivable in post-tribal Britain – that would make Brexit negotiations virtually impossible. On an issue so towering as Brexit, no prime minister with a modest but working majority has the right to take risks for naked party advantage.”
Anybody who witnessed the hectoring speeches that Theresa May delivered to the Conservative Party conferences of 2002 and 2005 should have taken the measure of this ridiculous woman. Only the invincible arrogance of Tory grandees could have imposed a Remainer to preside over the Brexit settlement. The same establishment opted, without considering the realistic alternatives, to submit to the Article 50 charade, a two-year ordeal exploited by Brussels apparatchiks to torment any nation daring to leave the EU. We should have left unilaterally and immediately.
Now the knives are out for Theresa May and deservedly so. But if she resigns today or any time soon, that will compound the damage already done. Are we to endure again the tortuous process of electing a Tory leader over the coming weeks, when the Brexit negotiations begin in ten days’ time? The Prime Minister has a duty, at least in the short term, to contribute some of her vaunted “stability” to the negotiations by starting the process.
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For the reality, despite Labour turning last night into another Sheffield rally of premature celebrations, is that the Conservatives remain in government. That fact obtained from the moment, around 6.30am, when they reached 313 seats. The BBC kept telling the public that the magic number of seats to secure a parliamentary majority was 326. Not so. That figure is predicated on a total of 650 MPs. In Northern Ireland, however, Sinn Fein had a good night and won seven seats, while reaffirming its abstentionist policy. That means the target for a majority is actually 323 seats.
The DUP, which also had a good night, won 10 seats. So, those 10 MPs can supply a majority to a continuing Conservative government and the DUP has already expressed its willingness to do so. Thanks to Scotland’s contingent of Tory MPs (who’d ha’ thunk it?), remaining in power is a perfectly practical proposition for the Conservatives. So, Jeremy Corbyn’s ambition to turn Britain in 2017 into a simulacrum of a grainy Eisenstein film from 1917 will be frustrated. It is nonetheless alarming that some 12 million voters were willing to license him to do just that.
The Labour phenomenon cannot be written off as the polytechnic Trot vote. It is a consequence of the enduring, relentless refusal of the political and media elites to listen to the concerns of the public. This election result suggests that public alienation has progressed beyond the rational rebellion that was the Brexit result to an irrational, virtually cultist, willingness to embrace any Levellers, Diggers or Fifth Monarchy Men who peddle their ideological wares in the public square.
The political class is using Theresa May’s total lack of judgement (she believed opinion polls!) as a pretext to fillet Brexit. Brexit is going to happen, that is undisputed; but it must be implemented cleanly, without trailing tendrils of EU influence being harboured as foreign bodies in the institutions and economy of post-Brexit Britain. Superstitious invocations of the single market ignore the appalling drag on growth it has imposed on Britain for the past 15 years, as proved by forensic analysis of its actual effects.
How is this mess to be sorted out? By a Conservative government proceeding with a strong, clean Brexit until the task is finished in 2019 – with or without Theresa May. If she stays, she must do so as a properly collegial prime minister acting in concert with her cabinet.
By the standards of a major general election, remarkably few seats changed hands. It is a consolation that that small number included the constituencies of Alex Salmond and Nick Clegg. The former deputy prime minister might serve as a memento mori to the suddenly hubristic Corbyn. “I agree with Nick” was the ludicrous precedent for yesterday’s Corbyn mania. That was only seven years ago and last night that aberration was finally buried. Every political career ends in failure, but few as spectacularly as that of Theresa May.