This campaign transformed, in seven weeks, from the most frustratingly predictable to the most thrillingly unpredictable General Election of my lifetime. The election was called by a cynical Theresa May, presuming she could capitalise on her personal and party's sky-high leads in polling and the apparent disarray of the Labour Party.
Unfortunately for her, she ran a disastrous campaign based on Lynton Crosby's three pronged strategy: (a) tight defence - establish a message and never, for one second, deviate from it; (b) give no hostages to fortune - try to be policy-free because then there's nothing for people to attack; (c) the dead cat strategy: if things are going bad throw a dead cat on the table - i.e. distract attention with something extreme and shocking.
All of these approaches failed. The first because the core message they ran on was her 'strong and stable' personality, but she doesn't have that personality, something that quickly became apparent. Theresa May is brittle and awkward; she thinks badly on her feet (she came apart in all the major interviews she did); she seemed on the verge of losing her temper much of the time. And strategy (a) was busted by the failure of strategy (b). She issues a very bland, very boring manifesto, with no eye-catching policies - except one, the so-called Dementia Tax that would require pensioners to pay for their own care after the first £100k. A few days later, Theresa May rowed back from that, announcing a ceiling as well as a floor. This was a disaster for three reason: one, it destroyed overnight the 'strong and stable' image; second, by blatantly lying and pretending that this wasn't a U-Turn she lost her reputation for being a straight talker; and third, this new policy was almost worse because it protected the very poor and the very rich and targeted middle-income pensioners, her natural constituency. And the dead cat strategy was to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of being a terrorist sympathiser: usually this might work, but first, after two terrorist attacks during the election campaign, this felt like she was turning the loss of life into a party political point; second, if anyone had been soft on terrorism, well, she'd been Home Secretary for 6 years, so she was hardly in a position to point a finger; third, it just seemed negative and weak.
A larger problem was that the election strategy was ill-suited to the election she'd called. She wanted a mandate; she was riding high in the polls; initially, people were talking about a Tory landslide. But she ran a campaign as if she were the underdog and needed to minimise her losses. The manifesto is where these two collided most disastrously. The defensive campaign was responsible for the general blandness of the document. The predicted landslide and personal mandate was responsible for the Dementia Tax policy.
But now she has a problem and we, the country, have a problem. But some things are clear:
Theresa May, obviously, cannot remain as Prime Minister. She is terribly, terribly wounded. She has been humiliated. She let a 20+pt poll lead slip away into nothing. She spent £150m of public and other money to get a mandate and did not get one. Her political capital is spent. She is blamed by the party, scorned by the public. She is a pathetic figure.
She is trying to struggle on by doing a deal with the DUP. The DUP have no place in our government. They are, in many respects, ignorant bigots on homosexuality, abortion, climate change, evolution, and more. They have just as close connections to unionist terrorism as Sinn Fein have to the IRA. And it would be dangerous to unbalance the delicate politics of the region (and the particular balance established by the Good Friday Agreement) to ally the Government so closely to one side. It is hard to imagine anyone accepting anything that the DUP would demand. A reduction on term limits for abortion or any explicit limitation on LGBT rights would be repellent to the centre of her party (Ruth Davidson has already protested). The soft Brexit that the DUP would want would be repellent to the right of her party. In the election, Theresa May lost the cities and the young. If she wants to set that pattern in stone, a really good way would be to buddy up with the DUP.
The Tories have no prospect of being able to form a stable government any time soon. May could not call another election. She would be instantly scorned. So she must wait for a challenger to come and make her humiliation complete. But who? Boris Johnson is popular among a dwindling band; he is very widely hated both within his own party and the public at large. David Davies probably wants the job but he is also hated by parts of his party. Furthermore, he is an arch-Brexiteer with a preference for a hard Brexit. But Theresa May wanted a mandate for her approach to the Brexit negotiations (which means a hard Brexit - no deal is better than a bad deal, etc.) and that has been decisively rejected. UKIP have been reduced to an irrelevance; the Tories were rejected by great swathes of the country. So it can't be him. Michael Gove is still cursed by his backstabbing last summer. Amber Rudd came perilously close to losing her seat in parliament so would be a risky choice.
And Brexit is coming. The clock is ticking, because, stupidly, Theresa May triggered Article 50 and then called an election, rather than, far more logically, the other way round. I think it is possible that the EU may agree to an extension, but to have to ask for one would be a terrible humiliation. Unless the case in the Irish courts finds that Article 50 can be untriggered, we are on a two-year countdown to being bounced out of the EU without a deal. We really need to focus on those negotiations not on all this stupid bullshit.
But we are where we are. So what to do?
I haven't mentioned Corbyn yet. Against all predictions, the Labour Party ran a brilliant campaign. They were almost entirely positive, offering the most exciting Labour Manifesto that I can remember (and I am nerdy enough to actually read them). They rarely descended into personal abuse; when May went low, they went high. They tactically outclassed the Tories at every turn; they handled the debates better than the Tories did; they turned a leak of the manifesto into a PR triumph; when the terrorist attacks happened, usually one would expect fear to drive voters back to the Tories (with their traditional strength in security and law and order), but they deftly avoided the traps; Corbyn proved himself to be an extraordinary and tireless campaigner, visibly at ease in his own skin (while Theresa May looked like she wanted to crawl out of hers). Labour lost the election but it feels like they won. This morning a new poll by Survation puts the Tories on 39% and Labour on 45%.
I still have my concerns about Corbyn, but this campaign has put to rest (for a while anyway) the sense of chaos and incompetence that has dogged them over the last two years. It must also have stilled the disquiet in the parliamentary party (for a while anyway). It is no longer impossible to imagine Jeremy Corbyn in Government. It is no longer impossible to imagine Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. For now, though, he doesn't have the numbers. He may do, after another election, but the Brexit clock is ticking.
This is what must happen.
- Theresa May must step down. She is doing no good to herself, her party or the country by carrying on.
- A national, cross-party team should be assembled to conduct the Brexit negotiations. It should include representatives from industry and the unions, from farms, fisheries, universities, and tech companies, experts in security and in the environment. It will have representatives from all parliamentary parties (sorry, Nigel) and all UK nations. We must buy in the best trade negotiators we can. It should be clear that the public have briefed these negotiators that everything is on the table, except a Hard Brexit.
- It follows from this that there should be a national government. This is a time of crisis. It is scarcely less urgent than a major war. Part of the stupidity of Theresa May's actions is her failure to understand what a crisis this is. We have two years to renegotiate our fundamental relationship with Europe. That has to be our primary focus over the next two years.
It has been said that this was an election in which everyone lost. If the country isn't to lose as well, Theresa May must turn her personal humiliation into a moment of cross-party consensus. It is the only way to save her reputation - and Britain's.
She still (just) has time.