Mayhem after the UK election, but May hangs on to leadership

The Conservative party won 318 out of 650 seats, short of the 326 needed for a majority and 12 fewer than it had before the election.

Lonely at the top: British prime minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street after returning from Buckingham Palace to seek permission from Queen Elizabeth to form a government on June 9, 2017. Her husband Philip stands behind her. Mrs May's Conservative party failed to win a majority and a hung parliament has been declared. Carl Court / Getty Images

Samanth Subramanian

Foreign Correspondent

DUBLIN // When the dust settled after a long, dramatic election night in Britain, one fact emerged most prominently. Despite calling a snap election to secure a large majority, and despite then taking the Conservatives to a diminished position in parliament, prime minister Theresa May hung on to the leadership of both her party and her country.

The Conservative party won 318 out of 650 seats, short of the 326 needed for a majority and 12 fewer than it had before the election. The party lost ground to its chief rival Labour, which jumped from 229 seats to 261 seats.

A record 51 elected members are from ethnic minorities, including several of South Asian descent, and Britain now has its first member of parliament of Palestinian descent, Layla Moran. Another record: 201 MPs are women.

On Friday afternoon, Mrs May sought and received permission from Queen Elizabeth to form a government in partnership with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which won 10 seats. At a speech outside 10 Downing Street, after returning from Buckingham Palace, Mrs May said the Conservatives and the DUP had enjoyed “a strong relationship over the years”.

“What the country needs more than ever is certainty, and having secured the largest number of votes and the greatest number of seats in the general election, it is clear that only the Conservative and Unionist party has the legitimacy and ability to provide that certainty by commanding a majority in the House of Commons,” she said.

But her tone was sombre and downbeat — a clear sign that she was chastened by the election’s outcome, and by her party’s steep slide in popularity over the past two months.

It was not so much that the Conservatives did miserably — just 1,688 strategically-cast votes could have won them the 326-seat majority they needed. In fact, the party’s vote share shot to 42 per cent, up five points from 2015.

Rather, it was that Mrs May had called the election on the back of inflated expectations, thinking that her party’s 21-point lead over Labour in opinion polls would translate into an electoral romp to 380-400 seats. Labour’s vote share jumped from 30 per cent to 40 per cent.

Mrs May’s campaign message was to deliver a “strong and stable” government that could guide the country through crucial Brexit negotiations with the EU over the next two years. Instead, her decision to hold an election has given her government a weaker rather than stronger hand in the negotiations and in parliament and her “strong and stable” mantra became a joke.

For Mrs May, the outcome can only be read as an erosion of confidence in her ability to steer the UK through the choppy waters of Brexit. “The result causes a headache for Brexit negotiations, but it can be managed,” said Tim Oliver, an associate at IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank.

For a while it was not even clear that Mrs May’s leadership would survive the day.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, was quick to demand the prime minister’s resignation as soon as the result became clear. “She wanted a mandate,” he said. “Well, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence. I would think that’s enough to go, actually.”

Before Mrs May stitched together her party’s deal with the DUP, Labour briefly contemplated bidding to form a minority government. “We are willing to serve the country,” said John McDonnell, a senior Labour politician. “I don’t think the Conservative government is stable, I don’t think the prime minister is stable.”

Mrs May’s own party members also turned their fury on her.

“It was an amazing own goal. We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we shot ourselves in the head,” said Nigel Evans, the Conservative MP from Ribble Valley. Former small business minister Anna Soubry, called it “a bad moment” for the party. “We need to take stock, and our leader needs to take stock as well.”

Now that Mrs May has reclaimed the prime ministership, however tenuously, the question becomes: what can she do with her limited mandate?

Britain has had several minority governments, but they have invariably been fragile and lacking in strong governance. In 1974, Harold Wilson’s minority government lasted just six months; in 1996-97, John Major’s lasted five.

But Mrs May has some time to adjust her vision and her stance, Dr Oliver said.

“Substantive Brexit negotiations were unlikely to happen until after the German elections in the autumn, so there is time for both the UK and the rest of the EU to think through where negotiations might go next,” he said.

“For the UK, the debate needs to start on what the British people think Brexit should mean.”

Mrs May’s proposed “hard Brexit”, planned without any wide political consultations, is now in doubt, but the election result presents a chance to clarify or amend this vision. “The EU needs to reflect on the opportunity this affords it and the UK to seek a Brexit that is softer,” Dr Oliver said.