Beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May announced Friday that she will form a government with the support of a small political party from Northern Ireland, following a disastrous general election that wiped out her Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority just days before critical Brexit negotiations with the European Union begin.
May called the snap election in April – three years earlier than required by law – seeking to strengthen her government’s mandate ahead of the Brexit talks. Buoyed by strong polling numbers, May and her party were confident of a landslide victory.
Instead, the Conservatives lost a dozen seats – and with it their parliamentary majority – resulting in a hung parliament and plunging the country into renewed political uncertainty. May’s political standing has been dealt a huge blow in the wake of her failed electoral gamble, which followed a poor campaign from her and her party.
But amid growing calls for her to resign over the election results, May announced in a brief statement outside Downing Street that she would form a government with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with whom her party had “enjoyed a strong relationship over many years.”
“This gives me the confidence to believe that we will be able to work together in the interests of the whole United Kingdom,” she said. She gave no details on how the relationship with the DUP would work – whether they would form a formal coalition or operate on a “confidence and supply” arrangement. The DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest political party, is unionist – that is, it favors continuing Northern Ireland’s continued membership in the United Kingdom – and socially conservative, opposing gay marriage and in favor of tight restrictions on abortion.
Contrary to speculation that Brexit talks with the E.U. might need to be delayed amid the political chaos following the election, May insisted that the negotiations, due to begin in 10 days, would proceed according to schedule. She said a government with the support of the DUP would “allow us to come together as a country and channel our energies towards a successful Brexit deal that works for everyone in this country, securing a new partnership with the EU which guarantees our long-term prosperity.”
Watch the PM's statement outside No10 when she announced she would be forming a government following the general election. pic.twitter.com/hX9bjniMQq
— UK Prime Minister (@Number10gov) June 9, 2017
May made no reference in her statement to her party’s catastrophic showing in Thursday’s general election, a vote they had initially been expected to win in a landslide. With polls giving the Conservatives a more than 20-point lead at the time she called the snap election, anything less than a big increase in their parliamentary seats would have been considered a failure.
But with 649 of the country’s 650 seats declared on Friday morning, the Conservatives had won 318 seats, short of the 326 seats required to govern. The support of the DUP’s 10 MPs gets the party over the threshold of 326, but their fragile partnership, whichever form it takes, will likely fall well short of the strong government May promised the nation when she called on them to deliver her a strong mandate to negotiate with the EU.
“The mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence,” said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn Friday, whose strong campaign performance surprised many, resulting in his party winning 261 seats, up 31 from last time. The veteran far-leader had faced repeated mutinies from within his own party, and was considered by many analysts to be too unpalatable to the general public to be a serious contender for prime minister.
“I would have thought that’s enough to go, actually, and make way for a government that will be truly representative of all of the people of this country,” said Corbyn.
Members of May’s own party were also scathing. MP Anna Soubry called on May to “consider her position” following “a pretty dreadful campaign,” in which the Conservatives squandered much of a 20-point lead in the polls.
What went wrong?
May’s campaign took a nosedive when the Conservatives announced controversial plans on the care of the elderly last month – branded a “dementia tax” by opponents – leading her to tweak the policy days later. She has faced criticism for her stiff communication style hewing closely to prepared talking points, for her refusal to engage Corbyn in public debate, and for the perception she was kowtowing to U.S. President Donald Trump on issues like his decision to leave the Paris Agreement, or his attacks on London Mayor Sadiq Khan in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack.
But May faced perhaps the greatest backlash for something she did not do as prime minister, but as home secretary: overseeing crippling cuts to the U.K.’s police force between 2010 and 2016, an issue brought to the fore in the light of two Islamist terror attacks that struck the U.K. in recent weeks.
The Conservatives’ campaign slogan — promising “strong and stable” leadership — rarely rang true during May’s rocky campaign, and efforts to paint a Labour-led government as a “coalition of chaos” failed to stick.
By contrast, Labour performed far better than expected. Campaigning on the slogan “for the many, not the few,” the party pledged to build a more equitable society by raising taxes on the wealthiest 5 percent, ending austerity policies, and investing hundreds of billions in infrastructure.
“Politics has changed,” Corbyn said as he was returned to his London seat of Islington North. “Politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before. What’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics.”
At nearly 69 percent, turnout for the election was the highest in 20 years, and analysts said that Labour had benefited from a strong showing from young voters. Another factor was the collapse in support for the pro-Brexit United Kingdom Independence Party, with its voters defecting evenly to the two major parties, rather than predominantly to the Conservatives, as many analysts had predicted.
It’s about Brexit after all
Although Brexit was supposed to be front-and-center during the campaign — the Conservatives advocating for a so-called “hard Brexit,” with Britain severing nearly all ties with the EU, and Labour for a “soft” one — the subject scarcely featured in debate. Instead, the economy, the fate of the National Health Service, and security have been at the forefront — the latter in particular amid ISIS-claimed terror attacks in Manchester and London, which each prompted a halt in campaigning.
Both major party leaders found themselves vulnerable on counterterror issues, with May facing criticism for her cuts to police, and Corbyn facing it for both his votes against some counter-terrorism laws, and his perceived historic ties to Islamist and Irish republican groups.
But despite Brexit’s relative absence from the debate, it may have been the defining issue in voters’ minds, a year after the seismic referendum vote to leave the EU.
Keir Starmer, Labour’s policy chief on Brexit, said the results showed “the rejection of Theresa May’s version of extreme Brexit.”
EU leaders have expressed fears that the political chaos in the UK could delay the Brexit negotiations, due to start June 19, or increase the risk of them failing to reach a deal. Despite May’s insistence that the negotiations will proceed as planned, European officials are not convinced.
“Yet another own goal, after Cameron now May,” tweeted Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s negotiator for Brexit. “Will make already complex negotiations even more complicated.”