Campaigns still matter.
Having called a snap general election certain to increase her majority, Theresa May found herself actually losing seats in a calamitous result Friday. Instead of consolidating her hold on power, the U.K. prime minister faces a hung parliament, and calls to resign from her own party. But May is holding on, seeking to set up a deal with an Irish political party, in the desperate hope of hanging on as the country’s leader.
The prime minister met with the Queen Friday, seeking to form a government despite her disastrous night. After the meeting, May gave a defiant speech which did not acknowledge the election result that saw her party lose 12 seats. Instead, she pledged to stay on in office to “provide certainty in difficult times.”
May defined the U.K. snap general election on her own terms. She called for it to happen, despite three years of the existing parliament left to run and having previously ruled out calling an early vote. She changed her mind in April after a walking holiday in Wales that just so happened to coincide with her party showing a twenty point lead in the polls. May explained that this u-turn was in order to secure a stronger parliamentary majority than she had inherited, and to provide a stronger hand in the Brexit negotiations that are scheduled to begin in just 10 days.
“Strong and stable”
The campaign was run as a presidential one, with Theresa May front and center, while cabinet ministers were shuffled off the big stage to tour regional TV studios. “Strong and Stable” leadership was May’s maxim and she was much mocked in her repeated use of it.
The entire election strategy was presented by conservative strategists as May’s election, with her Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn portrayed as a weak and untrusted leader. This was a gamble, based entirely on their leader being an appealing and trusted figure.
The U.K. now faces a hung parliament, showing the Conservative strategy up as a total disaster for the prime minister. By teaming up with the Irish Democratic Unionist Party, Theresa May could still hang on as leader, but she will be seen by her own party as having thrown away their best chance of a landslide victory in nearly three decades.
The Conservatives in Scotland fared better, led by the more telegenic and likeable leader Ruth Davidson, who managed to insulate herself from the taint of her U.K. counterpart.
The lesson of this election might turn out to be that campaigns really do matter. Theresa May was dogged by a series of missteps – most notably a u-turn on a central manifesto policy over social care. Accompanying these policy errors was a lack of political agility on the stump, where May looked not just uncomfortable but as though she actively disliked the attention and scrutiny. Asked in one interview what the naughtiest thing she had done as a child, May reached for the less than daring anecdote of having once ran through a field of wheat to the dismay of local farmers.
Theresa May led a campaign that even many Conservatives considered to be flat footed and badly run, with the prime minister choosing to rely on a tiny circle of advisers. But it was a campaign that had May’s name front and center, and one which was thrust upon an electorate already fatigued from a general election two years earlier and a bitter Brexit referendum campaign the year before.
The scramble to stay on in government may provide a victory from the jaws of defeat, but it will nonetheless be regarded as personal defeat for the incumbent prime minister, who many now see as fatally weakened.