It was a gamble. To do this, the Conservatives would have to win traditional Labour seats in northern England. But the odds seemed to be on May's side. When she announced the snap election just seven weeks ago, the Conservatives held a remarkable 16-point lead over Labour, according to one moving average.
On voting day, however, it became obvious May's plan had taken a disastrous turn. Exit polls, along with results that had come in by the time of this writing, show that May will almost certainly lose her majority rather than adding to it.
Although they are still likely to be the largest party in parliament, the Conservatives will not have enough seats to pass legislation on their own — resulting in the dreaded “hung parliament.” This raises the real and dramatic possibility that Corbyn, whose leadership was mocked for much of the campaign, could gain the support of smaller parties and become prime minister.
So May's opportunistic bid for more power has resulted in the exact opposite. On Twitter, the schadenfreude was swift and merciless.
There's going to be a lot of analysis of these results over the next few days, so let's just ask three big questions:
What went wrong for May? The prime minister inherited her position after former prime minister David Cameron, who campaigned against Brexit, resigned following his defeat in last summer's referendum. Having spent six years in the senior position of home secretary, May knew the government well. She also proved savvy enough to outflank better-known candidates such as Boris Johnson, then London mayor and now foreign secretary. Her admirers compared her with Britain's only other female leader, the iconoclastic Margaret Thatcher.
But when it came to finding the human touch on the campaign trail, May was at a loss. If Thatcher exuded self-confidence in public appearances, May was an awkward, grimacing figure. She has been rightfully mocked for her absurdly mundane answer to the question of what the “naughtiest” thing she had ever done was, but perhaps just as damning was her cold response to a nurse who explained her pay hadn't risen in eight years. "There's no magic money tree," May retorted.
This lack of grace in public appearances was made worse by the whiff of repeated dishonesty. May had again and again suggested she would not call an early election — then did. Before that, she had campaigned with Cameron to remain in the E.U., but she now leads the charge for a “hard” Brexit. This pattern extended beyond May to Conservative policy proposals during the campaign: When a plan to charge senior citizens more for social care prompted a backlash and the nickname “the dementia tax,” May abandoned it — but then denied that she had.
What went right for Corbyn? As a longtime leftist backbencher, Corbyn was better known for his antiwar activism than his hand in policy. But because of the quirks of Labour's internal politics, he emerged as leader after the party's humiliating defeat in the 2015 election. Since then, he has fended off several challengers from his party's centrist wing and faced an avalanche of negative coverage from Britain's right-wing tabloids.
Corbyn was not your standard opposition leader. He looked scruffy and cut a demure figure during early appearances in Britain's rowdy parliamentary debates. For much of his leadership, Labour's poll numbers suggested a historic defeat was in the cards. But when he began campaigning, something changed.
Corbyn's relaxed style was simply a relief compared with May's teeth-grinding anxiety, and his experience at protests proved valuable practice for his appearances at Labour rallies around the country. More than anything, he appears to have been able to tap into the anxiety of Britain's young and urban voters, many of whom felt alienated by Brexit and years of Conservative-lead austerity policies. As Labour's numbers went up, even Corbyn's detractors began to offer their begrudging approval.
So, what next? At the time of this writing, it looks as though Britain is heading for a hung parliament. That could mean a whole range of scenarios, as spelled out by my colleague Rick Noack, including the once-remarkable possibility that Corbyn could become prime minister (for a playful prediction of how some think that might go, try reading this from 2015). Even if this doesn't happen, there is little chance that Corbyn will step down from the front bench anytime soon.
May could still pull together a slim majority or round up enough support for a minority government, but she is seemingly hanging by a thread. Her voice shook early Friday morning as she accepted victory in her own constituency, her promises of "stability" looking more like delusions. Labour is calling on her to quit, and at least one Conservative member of parliament has already seemed to suggest May should stand down. If she does, she'll be the shortest-serving prime minister since the 1920s.
"The prime minister called the election because she wanted a mandate," Corbyn said after winning reelection to his north London seat. "Well, the mandate she’s got is lost Conservative seats, lost votes, lost support and lost confidence. I would have thought that is enough for her to go, actually."
An election hastily called to give Britain stability ahead of Brexit negotiations may end up doing the opposite. There is talk that this could lead to another referendum or yet another election — potentially Britain's fourth major nationwide vote in as many years. At the least, Britain may have to ask the E.U. for an extension on the start of Brexit talks, due this month.
Right now, the only thing certain about Britain's future is uncertainty itself.
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