An Ignorant American's Guide to Britain's Election Mess

Explaining how Theresa May lost by winning and Jeremy Corbyn's loss was actually a huge win.

by Mike Pearl
Jun 9 2017, 8:45pm

A friendly British protest puppet. Photo by Rick Findler/PA Images via Getty Images

If you're an American like me, the results of Thursday's UK election are puzzling. Conservative Theresa May was prime minister before the election and today she's still prime minister, except she's somehow a shell of her former self. Her opponent, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, doesn't get to be prime minister but he's over the moon with joy and high-fiving his colleague's boob on national TV.

This all seems to be (and my apologies if this is a Rocky spoiler) a lot like the life of Rocky Balboa, who lost his first bout against Apollo Creed, but showed so much grit or whatever that he won, sort of?

But this election was more consequential than Labour losing by less than expected. May had only been in office for about nine months, and voluntarily called an election in April (that's how it works in the UK) in order to shore up the Conservatives' majority and give her a proper mandate. This election result was scheduled to come in right before the start of negotiations around Brexit (the UK's voter-mandated withdrawal from the European Union) and the expectation was that the Conservatives would grind Labour into pulp, giving the ruling party more authority to negotiate with Europe.

Instead, the Conservatives lost 12 seats, and with them their crucial majority in the House of Commons, which is the prerequisite to forming a government in the UK. The Conservatives cobbled together a government anyway, even as Labour supporters partied in the streets last night.

This left me with a lot of questions. So I rang up my colleague Simon Childs, home affairs editor for VICE UK. Simon filled me in on what this means for lefties, how it will impact Brexit, and what it has to do with the only person I think about every day other than my girlfriend: Donald Trump.

VICE: How are you feeling right now?
Simon Childs: Anyone as left-wing as I am is happy.

As an American, I can't see beyond my own shores, so I'd like to start by asking: was this a referendum on Trump?
No. There were Trump-y questions, but it wasn't a referendum on Trump. Theresa May being too chummy with Trump didn't look good. Everyone mocked her for holding his hand. And I guess the Brexit thing has a Trump dimension, because if we turn our backs to Europe, who are we gonna hang out with? It's gonna be Donald Trump's America, which everyone here was like "fuck that." But it was more of a referendum on Brexit. It was also a referendum on austerity—the cutting of public services. We have free public healthcare system here that we like, and the Tories are very intent on getting rid of it. And all the schools, and other public services here are getting slashed, and a lot of people are unhappy with that.

Watch: The UK's scariest debt collector

To what extent did Theresa May lose, and to what extent did she actually win?
Everyone's reporting that the Tories lost, which is true in the sense that they fucked up massively. But they were still the party that returned the most MPs out of any in the House of Commons. So they get first refusal on trying to form a new government.

OK, and they did that by teaming up with some tiny party called DUP. What the fuck is DUP?
Imagine if Donald Trump was in Northern Ireland. They're anti-abortion, and anti-gay rights, and yeah, they're like holding Britain for ransom.

And so since they're part of the ruling coalition, are they going to spoil all of Theresa May's fun by pushing their own agenda?
They'll try and get a lot of concessions, but that'll be a lot of investment in Northern Ireland, like infrastructure and stuff. It's a region of the UK—well, it's a country in the UK—that no one has given a fuck about for years. We have a sort of problem in the UK with a very London-centric media bubble that doesn't care about the rest of the country sometimes... critics would say.

How does DUP's involvement affect Brexit?
Despite being uber-convervative, the DUP are more cautious about Brexit. They want a "soft" Brexit and they're now in bed with the Tory party that's trying to push Brexit through, which ran a really strong, tough, Brexit throughout the campaign. Meanwhile, in Europe, they basically don't care. The whole idea of the campaign as to give Theresa May a mandate to carry out Brexit. Essentially that's backfired massively, because she has a weaker mandate than she ever had.

Right after this election was called, everyone I follow in UK politics was like, "Oh way to go Jeremy Corbyn!" Why did everyone hate him at first?
That kind of Labour is fucked. Labour is doomed vibe was the case at first. That's been the case ever since Corbyn got in. This idea that he's incompetent, and no one could ever vote for him. It's not complete nonsense. He isn't conventionally the most liked political figure. He has done a few gaffes and stuff. He's not very media-friendly. And because of all that stuff, and because most of the commentariat of the British media are mostly from the Blair years, and a lot of them think Blair was the best, they can't imagine something other than that. That's where that sort of mood music came from.

Then what happened?
Corbyn overcame that by offering a positive program, offering something to the electorate compared to the conservatives who offered absolutely nothing—the Conservatives just wanted to hang back and let Corbyn screw himself over.

How did he overcome all that stuff about him being a grouch who doesn't know how to dress?
He's got that anti-establishment schtick, and he's quite a likable guy in his sort of slightly awkward way. And he was quite relaxed in media performances compared to Theresa May who looks like she's taken a bad pill and needs to sit down. She's allergic to any media scrutiny. It just became apparent that, you know what? People are saying Corbyn is a jerk, but actually he could do something. He's nowhere near as ridiculous as Theresa May.

Something I'm seeing a lot of right now is Corbyn fans gloating directly at J.K. Rowling. What'd she do to piss them off?
OK, so J.K. Rowling is a kind of exemplar of a type of person—and there were a lot of celebrities and columnists—who were basically pro-Labour, but pro- a particular kind of Blair-ist, right wing, politically centrist, pro-capitalist, sort of light version of the Conservative Party. J.K. Rowling and others were like, I'd love it Labour could win under Jeremy Corbyn, but he's just not electable. She also tried to understand politics by being like, Jeremy Corbyn is not Harry Potter! and sort of like trying to make Potter references in all her political analysis, which was sort of unbearably annoying. And all those people like J.K. Rowling really set themselves up for a fool, because they were smugly like, Well, if this fucks up, it's on you guys, Corbyn fans! You better own this result when you lose, and fuck everyone over. Now everyone's like, Yeah we're owning it, and you suck.

I've noticed Prime Ministers have a tendency to resign when they hit a bad patch—like when David Cameron resigned last year. Are Theresa May's days numbered?
They're numbered, yeah. She seems to be clinging on because they can't get rid of her now, because that would undermine the Conservatives' legitimacy even more, so they have to just kind of leave her in place. But yeah, her stock has completely fallen and the Tories think she's an idiot. This was supposed to be this Machiavellian move, and it's completely fucked up. The Tory party is absolutely brutal. They'll just march behind someone, and as soon as they screw up, they'll devour them and spit their bones out, and get the next guy. So her days are numbered. Exactly how that'll play out will be interesting to see, but it'll be something to follow.

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Follow Simon Childs on Twitter also.

Correction: this article previously stated that the DUP are against Brexit. In fact they favour a "soft" Brexit. This has now been corrected.