Theresa May's night of epic failure: How the 2017 election plunged UK and Brexit into uncertainty

She spent the election promising strong and stable leadership. She has left the country uncertain about who will be running Britain, 11 days before the start of Brexit negotiations

Adam Lusher
Thursday 07 December 2017 12:23 GMT
Theresa May leaving Conservative Party HQ with her husband Philip after admitting to activists that it had been a 'difficult' night
Theresa May leaving Conservative Party HQ with her husband Philip after admitting to activists that it had been a 'difficult' night

Like camp followers of old, gathering on the hills in anticipation of watching their army crush the enemy in battle, they had come to Maidenhead, the home seat of their Conservative leader Theresa May.

When she had called her snap election back in April, the talk had been of a 140-something majority, a victory over “leftie”’ Jeremy Corbyn to rival that of Margaret Thatcher over leftie Michael Foot in 1983.

Since then, expectations had been lowered somewhat, but they were still anticipating a thumping majority of around 60.

Then the exit poll came in: 314 predicted for the Conservatives, down from 331; 266 for Labour, up from 229.

No Maggie-style majority, not even a David Cameron-style working majority of 17. No majority at all, a hung parliament.

“It cannot be true,” senior Conservatives told the BBC’s Andrew Marr in Maidenhead.

But just before midnight, after a brief flurry of hope when early results from Sunderland cast doubt on the predicted numbers, came Swindon North: a Conservative hold, but with the Labour vote increasing by 10.7 per cent, almost exactly in line with the exit poll.

Half an hour later came Basildon and Billericay, setting one of the trends of the night: Ukip losing deposits, but the Conservatives having to share the Kippers’ votes with Labour.

“That was their biggest mistake of the campaign,” Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson would say later. “They just assumed that anyone who voted Ukip was right-wing. [But] they voted because they were economically insecure. They wanted a party that tried to address that.”

With infinite caution, all the while expressing scepticism about the exit poll – almost as if he couldn’t quite believe his luck – shadow Chancellor John McDonnell suggested: “This election has changed the nature of political discourse in this country.”

It certainly left you with the impression that the UK was continuing the recent global trend of insurgent politics overturning the old certainties, the old complacencies.

Brexit, Trump, Macron in France, and now this: a result that was shaping up to be one of the most extraordinary shocks in UK electoral history.

Darlington, Tory sources had suggested about three weeks ago, was “in the bag”. Now it was being held by Labour.

Then came Wrexham. Even the exit poll had suggested the Conservatives would win this one. They needed a swing of just 2.8 per cent, and Ukip – worth 5,072 here in 2015 – had withdrawn to help the Tories.

But Ian Lucas held the seat for Labour with almost exactly the same majority as 2015: 1,832 votes, up one from 1,831 two years ago.

Election 2017: How the night unfolded

Tooting had been highlighted as a constituency that might indicate an imminent Conservative landslide. Labour didn’t just hold this London outpost. It more than doubled its majority here.

So unthinkable had all this seemed a few weeks ago that Remain-leaning London MPs had been pitching to voters on the basis that they were needed to disrupt the plans of Theresa May, who would inevitably be re-elected Prime Minister.

“Realistically, no one thinks Theresa May will not be Prime Minister, or that she will not have the majority she needs to negotiate Brexit," wrote Labour’s Joan Ryan to voters in Enfield North.

The rumblings of discontent among London Labour candidates even went as far one admitting privately that Jeremy Corbyn was “not the leader I would have wanted to go into an election with”. If Labour did as badly as the polls were then suggesting, the candidate told The Independent last month, questions would have to be asked about Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

But tonight it was Ms May whose leadership was being questioned. It was Theresa, not Jeremy who people thought would be out by Christmas.

“I think people have recognised an authentic man of principle as opposed to someone who has acted like a robot,” said the Corbynista filmmaker Ken Loach.

At least Ms May’s leader’s debate stand-in Amber Rudd just about held on to her Hastings and Rye seat, albeit by 346 votes after a full recount.

Back in the Labour camp, Wes Streeting, leading member of the party’s awkward squad, increased his Ilford North majority from 589 to 9,369, and had to admit to Sky News: “It would be churlish, even for a Corbyn critic like me, to go on television and say Jeremy should be packing his bags.”

Tom Watson, fresh from defying Tory predictions that he might lose his West Bromwich East seat, dodged questions about his own previous ambivalence towards Mr Corbyn, and instead seemed to run with Mr McDonnell’s suggestion of a changed political discourse.

“It shows that you can argue that natural resources could be socially owned, and the sky doesn’t fall in. You can argue that there could be a greater role for the state in providing public services.”

And now, with a new dawn about an hour away from breaking, here was Jeremy Corbyn himself, increasing his majority by winning the largest number of votes ever recorded in the borough of Islington.

“Do you know what?” he told the Islington North crowd, “Politics has changed, and politics is not going to go into the box where it was before.”

“The Prime Minister called the election because she wanted a mandate. Well, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence.

“I would have thought that’s enough for her to go, actually.”

At almost exactly the same time, Ms May was walking to towards the stage for her count in Maidenhead, with Kay Burley of Sky News shouting at her: “Are you going to resign, Prime Minister?”

When you promise strong and stable leadership and then gamble away a working majority 11 days before the start of epoch-making Brexit negotiations, you probably should expect nothing else.

Long, long before 5.50am, when a Labour hold in Southampton Test confirmed this would be a hung parliament, the talk turned to who would run the country – or, indeed, whether anyone could now run the country or whether that question would have to be settled by calling yet another election.

What is a hung parliament?

Everything and anything was suggested: a wartime-style government of national unity, a Labour minority government.

"We are ready to do anything we can to put our programme into operation," said a bullish Mr Corbyn on Friday morning. "We are ready to serve the country."

"I think it is pretty clear who won this election," he added, despite his party not actually having secured an overall majority.

But he also said, again despite the absence of an overall Labour majority: “We have done no deals.”

Who are the DUP?

So perhaps, instead, a small rescue party of Democratic Unionists could prop up the Conservatives. Theresa May seemed to be preparing to go to Buckingham Palace just after midday to tell the Queen she had something like that in mind.

Alternatively, maybe there could be a “progressive alliance” – although that seemed unlikely after Nick Clegg, of Coalition notoriety, lost his seat and current Lib Dem leader Tim Farron – who had ruled against pacts – hung on, albeit after a recount.

Odds shortened on Boris Johnson becoming the new Conservative leader, but on a grim night for other, less personally ambitious Brexiteers, Ukip spokesman Patrick O’Flynn was heard wailing to Sky News: “What has Theresa May done to the Brexit process?”

With no majority, where now was her big, clunking democratically endowed mandate to enforce the will of the people against Remoaners like the unelected House of Lords?

So much for crushing the saboteurs.

And amid what was starting to look like total division and uncertainty, there was yet another possibility to contend with: the Conservatives were still going to be the largest party, and if not Theresa, who else could lead them?

Cometh the hour, cometh exactly which great Tory statesman or stateswoman? Perhaps it was the ungodly hour, but names did not exactly spring to mind.

Sources were saying she had no intention of resigning, so perhaps she would stay on as Prime Minister simply by default, occasioned by the absence of anyone else who could challenge her and unite Tory Remain and Leave factions

Perhaps it wasn’t just hope and loyalty that had led Treasury minister David Gauke to insist early on in the night: “Theresa May continues to be the dominant figure in the Conservative Party.”

Perhaps, as Britain prepared to go into Brexit talks that might define this country’s fortunes for a generation, no one had a clue who would be in charge.

Ms May had avoided the reporters, but she had to say something to the crowd at the Maidenhead count.

Even now she clung to her strong and stable theme:

“At this time, more than anything else, this country needs a period of stability. If, as the indications have shown, the Conservative Party has won the most seats and the most votes, it will be incumbent on us to ensure we have that period of stability.”

Nor was there any entertaining the idea that she might have gone into her snap election gamble out of pure political opportunism.

“Doing what is in the national interest: that is what I have always tried to do in my time as a member of Parliament, and my resolve to do that is the same this morning as it has always been.”

But the smile was thin, and as she said it, there seemed to be a catch in her voice.

Without pausing to take any reporters’ questions, she left by the back door.

After hubris, nemesis.

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