A humiliated Theresa May staggers on

Voters in the British general election have rejected the hard Brexit the prime minister has been alarmingly happy to contemplate

British prime minister Theresa May promised strong and stable leadership, but her party’s words and actions over the past year, as well as her poor campaign, pointed to weakness, opportunism and self-doubt. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

British prime minister Theresa May promised strong and stable leadership, but her party’s words and actions over the past year, as well as her poor campaign, pointed to weakness, opportunism and self-doubt. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

 

Theresa May called a snap election to shore up her authority and buy herself room for manoeuvre on the eve of the Brexit negotiations. In their emphatic response, British voters have exposed the prime minister’s limitations as a political leader, set the clock ticking on her premiership and shown that the convulsions set off by Brexit may be just beginning.

The Conservatives’ humiliation is entirely self-inflicted. Its approach to Brexit – the biggest political upheaval for the United Kingdom in the postwar era – has been profoundly unserious from the outset. The party recklessly called a referendum without preparing a contingency plan for a Yes vote. As prime minister, May wilfully misinterpreted the close referendum result as an endorsement for the most extreme and damaging version of withdrawal, joining the fruitier fringes of her party in perpetuating the fiction that even a disorderly exit would deliver a long-lost utopia. In fact it would wreak havoc with the economy and imperil the prospects of many British citizens, not to mention others farther afield.

When she finally called the election, on the false pretence that she was being stymied by parliament, May asked for a mandate for her Brexit strategy without deigning to say what that strategy was. She promised strong and stable leadership, but her party’s words and actions over the past year, as well as her poor campaign, pointed to weakness, opportunism and self-doubt.

Brexit was a con perpetrated by the old on the young. On Thursday, younger voters came out in droves, and sided disproportionately with Labour. That powered the party’s vote to a level far in excess of most predictions, solidifying Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership after a strong campaign that defied predictions, and disproving two tired clichés: that young people cannot be persuaded to vote and that a left-wing platform with an emphasis on public services is automatically an electoral liability. The great pity was that Labour, riven by its own divisions, could not offer a more coherent counterpoint to Tory orthodoxy on Brexit.

By denying May a majority, voters have rejected the hard Brexit that she has been alarmingly happy to contemplate. That’s good news. But the road to Brexit looks as uncertain as ever. On the face of it, the likelihood that the DUP will prop up the next British government should help ensure a more favourable Brexit for Northern Ireland, and by extension the island as a whole. But the DUP itself has a blind spot on Brexit, which it supported despite the wishes of a majority of Northern voters and Ireland’s unique exposure to the consequences of withdrawal.

Theresa May warned of the dangers of a “coalition of chaos” propped up by fringe elements. Now, as she staggers into a minority administration with her authority shot, we are about to see how real that danger is.

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