As the crowd gathered last night for the Newgate Election Night Party we were confident about one thing: no matter how poor the Conservative election campaign, no matter how impressive the ‘Jez We Can’ surge, the Tories would secure a bigger Commons majority when the results were announced. We were absolutely sure. Fine, the consensus was that they would win by 40-odd rather than by three figures (although some said differently), but they would still do okay. And then we saw the exit poll.
In the 18 or so hours since then several things have become clear. The first is that several political careers were seriously damaged last night. Paul Nuttall has already stood aside. Tim Farron may also resign in the next few weeks. Nicola Sturgeon probably won’t, but the loss of so many SNP seats to all three opposing parties does little for her reputation and points to troubled times ahead. But the biggest casualties were on the Tory side. For example, will we ever see Lynton Crosby running a UK election campaign again? What will Nick Timothy, the author of the suicide note of a manifesto, do next? And what about Theresa May?
Despite her best King Canute impression in Downing Street earlier, Mrs May is holed below the waterline. Let’s be in no doubt, this was a shattering blow for her. She called an election she didn’t need to call, when she had said categorically that she wouldn’t. She then made it very personal, insisting that candidates describe themselves as being on ‘Theresa May’s team’. She presided over a domineering and secretive campaign. She refused to do the debates. She was both robotic (“What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve ever done?”) and ridiculous (“Boy jobs and girl jobs”). In short, she was nothing less than a disaster.
So thanks to the support of her new DUP friends she may stumble on for today, maybe for a while. But her position is untenable. MPs are furious with her. The Europeans are laughing at her – and at us. She has limited authority, and no credibility at all. Zero. Even the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, says for her to remain as Prime Minister will be “difficult”. I expect the men in grey suits to come knocking very soon, if Mrs May doesn’t do the right thing. For her to stay even for a matter of weeks would be a miracle. The only thing standing between her and oblivion is the need for the Parliamentary party to line up behind one candidate.
On that subject, there will be a lot of focus on Boris, but I’d look elsewhere. David Davis is another contender. Ruth Davidson, with her ability to connect and her track record of winning elections, would be my preferred option, notwithstanding the fact she isn’t (yet) an MP. Let’s wait and see.
The election result, and particularly the need for the Tories to climb into bed with the DUP, is very bad news for Hard Brexit. The DUP may have campaigned to leave the EU but not surprisingly given the need to preserve links between Ireland and the North they want the softest of Brexits with easy cross-border travel and trade a key priority. I would be astonished if there isn’t now a solid consensus in Parliament for remaining in the Customs Union, and probably for a more pragmatic approach to limiting immigration. Certainly that is the growing hope in Brussels.
That said, the politicians need to be careful. As well as young Remainers voting for Corbyn it seems likely that in many places Labour Leavers who voted for UKIP in 2015 and against the EU in 2016 returned to the fold yesterday. These voters have a clear vision of the kind of UK they want: one with a strong NHS, well-funded public services and a redistributive (or punitive) tax system, a UK for the many not the few, and a UK that restricts immigration and is outside the EU. In many if not all respects they are model Corbynistas. Too soft a Brexit will not play well amongst this crowd, nor amongst many old school Tories. Politicians will need to find a balance.
Speaking of Corbynistas, Jezza of course had a great election in the end. As May floundered he improved. He can now stay for as long as he likes, entrenching Momentum, promoting his allies and changing the rules to drive his party ‘permanently’ to the left. But Labour’s problems have not gone away. The tensions between most, moderate, MPs and the leadership persist. That Labour’s manifesto didn’t add up and would have been a disaster as an agenda for Government remains true. It seems improbable that the Tories will ever again fight such a bad election – nor that the LibDems and the SNP will do so poorly either. There is a serious risk that this is a high water mark, or a dead cat bounce. They cannot afford to think that simply doubling down will bring greater success next time.
So there we are. A depressing, tedious, over-long election campaign has delivered an explosive result. The reverberations will last for a while. Changes amongst the political leadership class, shifts in our approach to Brexit, perhaps another election within months, all will follow from yesterday. For now we can only sit back and enjoy the aftermath of Theresa May’s self-destructive election.