The sudden crisis of Theresa May's leadership offers hope of a different Brexit

Whatever this election means, it was not an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s hard Brexit

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The Independent Online

In 11 days’ time someone has to begin negotiations in Brussels on behalf of the United Kingdom, and as we go to press it is unclear who that will be. One person it suddenly looks unlikely to be, unless in the most temporary of capacities, is Theresa May. 

The collapse of a Prime Minister who called an election when she looked as if she dominated the nation continues an extraordinary spate of self-inflicted mayhem among the big beasts of the Conservatives. Her predecessor held a referendum when he need not have done and destroyed his political career and that of his Chancellor. Michael Gove then denied Boris Johnson’s hopes of leadership, and his own, in a spectacular act of disloyalty. If, or when, Ms May steps down, who will step forward – David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, or Mr Johnson all over again?

The political class, instead of presenting strong and stable leadership, has provided the spectacle of a stage strewn with bodies. Ms May said that “every vote for me will make me stronger”, and the voters chose to make her so weak that she will in all likelihood have to leave the stage. 

Mr Corbyn – not a natural member of the political elite – is one of two leaders who emerge this morning with credibility enhanced. The Labour Party has made impressive gains, and yet it has still fallen short of its target. As Ms May pointed out in her speech at her count in Maidenhead, the Conservatives have still ended up with the most seats and the most votes. The other leader, who already finds herself giving careful answers to the question of whether she would like to change from leader of the Scottish Conservatives to lead the party across the UK, is Ruth Davidson. How extraordinary that the Scottish vote would save the national party.

The political map of the United Kingdom stands this morning profoundly redrawn. The smoke has not yet cleared, but three things are apparent. One is that Ms May ought to go, and that there must be a full contest for her successor. The second is that the timetable for Brexit is less clear than it seemed to be. It is hard to see how serious negotiations can start in the next few days. Beyond that, however, there must be questions asked about the kind of Brexit that this country really wants. Ms May called this election to secure a mandate for her vision of Brexit, with which The Independent took issue because of her apparent preference for restricting immigration regardless of the economic – and wider – cost. The verdict of the British people on that question is ambiguous, just as the original referendum decision was narrow. What this election was not, however, was an endorsement of Ms May’s hard Brexit. It is as if some of the young people who failed to turn out in the referendum last year tried to make up for it this time. 

Thirdly, Mr Corbyn’s policies and personality turned out to be more popular than the purveyors of conventional wisdom thought possible. This election was, in that sense, a vote against Ms May’s intention to keep public spending so low that it would squeeze the NHS and schools too far. People want a sense of uplift and optimism rather than permanent financial stringency. 

It will take a while to get to grips with the meaning of this election, still unclear this morning, but we do know that the course Ms May set was the wrong one and now is the time for a correction.