What a night. Theresa May, who became the longest serving Home Secretary in a century now looks to be the shortest serving Prime Minister in 300 years. After failing to win a majority in an election that by all measures she should have won, her position looks untenable as prominent Conservative MPs – such as Anna Soubry – have called on her to “consider her position” (a polite euphemism for step down) on national television. There’s every possibility that the Democratic Unionist Party – Northern Ireland’s far-right, homophobic party – could prop up a minority Tory government, but even if so, May looks unlikely to be leading it.
This is the third British general election I’ve covered as a journalist and it is, without a doubt, the most shocking of my life. Few, including myself, saw this coming. Yet here we are, and whilst it’s still incredibly early, there are six things we can take away from Thursday’s vote:
- This is a very bad result for Brexit
Let’s start with the obvious: it’s clear that Brexit negotiations must be put on hold, or Article 50 temporarily rescinded altogether. Negotiations were due to start on 19 June, but that seems all but impossible now. May is likely to step down, which means we’re going to have a Tory leadership contest. That will take weeks, at least. No matter who fills her kitten heels, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll immediately be ready to go to Brussels. Even the Sun is reporting – quite uncritically – that EU officials are already suggesting they may put the brakes on any negotiations. It’s untelling when they may go forward.
Beyond that though, Theresa May’s loss is a blow to a Tory hard Brexit. The Prime Minister called this election to “strengthen her hand” in the Brexit negotiations. The Daily Mail famously called on her to “crush the saboteurs” on its front page, but the saboteurs ended up crushing her. The British people have made it clear that a hard Brexit is not what they voted for. Britain is likely to remain in the single market, and the entire Tory Brexit plan will have to be scrapped and rewritten. Labour’s Brexit plan resonated, and soft-Brexit Tories must certainly feel emboldened to take on their more Eurosceptic colleagues.
- This is a very good result for Corbyn
Nobody saw this coming, not even – I’m told – the Labour leader himself. Yet Jeremy Corbyn has achieved the greatest political upset in modern British history, even though he technically lost the election. Literally everyone, including his own party officials, had all but accepted a massive defeat was in the cards. This morning, though, Labour MPs who were expected to lose their seats – like moderate Wes Streeting – have actually increased their majority. This is the best result for Labour since 2010. I cannot stress how incredible this is. When everyone – including me – had written Corbyn off as a loser, he’s proven is he, well, a loser, but not quite as big a one as any of us thought he was.
Normally a Labour leader in his position would be called on to step down. But there are a few things working in Corbyn’s favour here. For starters, expectations were so low that this loss actually looks very good. Beyond that, though, he was bolstered by the people he brought into the party and, crucially, the youth vote. Corbyn has emboldened Millennials and Gen Z in a way no other politician on either side of the Atlantic has. Labour won’t want to lose that momentum going into future elections. He also had little time to prepare for this snap election – six weeks or so – and faced an unbelievably hostile media.
His performance tonight proves Labour is trending in the right direction and that his vision resonates with voters in a way Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband never did. They may grumble privately, but expect Labour moderates to fall in line over the next several months.
- Lynton Crosby has lost his magic touch
The Tory Svengali who won David Cameron two elections should never have been brought in to run Theresa May’s campaign. Not only do reports from CCHQ indicate that he never really “got” her or what to do with her, but he had also lost a campaign the Tories expected to win just last year – the London mayoral campaign. That campaign should have shown that Crosby’s unique blend of fearmongering and soundbites no longer worked. The Tories made the fatal mistake of thinking London was one thing but the country another. It became apparent that Crosby’s reluctance to send May out into the field and his attacks on Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser never resonated with the British public. This is possibly because there were two attacks on May’s watch at the height of the campaign, but it’s more likely that the British people have wised up to his tricks.
- The tide of right wing nationalism seems to be waning
After Brexit and Donald Trump, a lot of us were bracing for the nasty re-emergence of a right-wing nationalism the West hadn’t seen since the 1930s. But with the defeat of Le Pen and Britain’s rejection of a hard Brexit this week, it seems that the tides are turning. By voting so overwhelmingly for internationalist, left-of-centre parties (Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens), Britain has rejected an inward looking, isolationist, xenophobic worldview and shown it is still open and accepting and ready to act on the global stage. It’s hard to see how any reactionary populist wins going forward, which will be a massive relief to fair-minded people in Britain and beyond. (And, you must imagine, to the Democrats who must campaign in the US midterms in 2018.)
- The future is more uncertain than ever
As I type this the Tories are currently tearing themselves apart (privately, of course) over whether Mrs May can remain on as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, John McDonnell is calling on the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens, and other parties to help Labour form a minority government. It’s more likely the Conservatives will be joined, or at least bolstered, by the DUP to form a right-leaning coalition or minority government, but anyone who tells you they know is lying. Assuming someone does form a coalition or minority government, though, there’s no telling how long it might last. Many are predicting an autumn election (please don’t tell Brenda from Bristol), but others are saying the Tories – should they succeed – will cling on until 2022, when they Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2010 mandates the next election happen. The truth is, we simply don’t know what will happen. This level of uncertainty is not only bad for Brexit, but bad for the markets – which, though as I type is early in London and the middle of the night in New York – have already reacted with volatility throughout Asia.
I don’t know what’s going to happen next. No one does. But whatever happens, we can all be assured we have witnessed one of the most galling political upsets in British history – and that the country may never be the same again.