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The Globe and Mail

Theresa May wins election, but ends up the biggest loser

Sotirios Zartaloudis is a lecturer in politics and director of postgraduate studies in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham.

When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election in April, she did so from a position of strength: Opinion polls were giving her party approximately a 20-per-cent lead while all qualitative evidence on the leaders' popularity were portraying her as the most trusted leader, in sharp contrast to her main rival, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn. Her plan was to seize the opportunity of such favourable public opinion and crush the opposition by expanding her slim majority in Parliament.

However, the election results derailed these plans spectacularly. The Conservative Party achieved a Pyrrhic victory by losing seats and a previously held absolute majority in the House of Commons. Adding insult to injury, the often ridiculed Mr. Corbyn managed to lead a resurgence of the Labour Party, earning a 29-seat gain over the previous election.

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Ms. May has managed already to form a coalition government with the ultra-conservative but anti-hard-Brexit Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, but this is a far cry from expectations of a Tory landslide and a 100-plus majority.

Comment: Theresa May's hubris cost the Conservatives dearly

These elections mark a personal humiliation for incumbent Ms. May, who ran a very personalized campaign as a "strong and stable" leader asking British voters to give her a clear mandate to negotiate Brexit. Ms. May scored an unforced own goal by reducing her party's parliamentary seats and absolute majority. Her ruinous campaign involved her not showing up in the leaders' TV debate, political gaffes in her manifesto about social care for pensioners (a core voter group for her party) and a lack of any clearly defined agenda or goals for the next government. These elections leave her bruised and without a mandate to govern Britain and lead the Brexit negotiations.

Moreover, her government will be weakened both internally and externally. Internally, as with all coalition governments, reaching consensus on any decision will be a challenge. Additionally, she will have to reconcile two opposing groups within her party: a libertarian/globalist free-trade camp which seeks to have economic relations with the EU and a nationalist camp which prioritizes control of borders and reduction of immigration irrespective of the resulting negative economic impact. Brexit cannot satisfy both camps. Either Britain has to comply with key EU single-market principles (including free movement of people, jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and EU directives), or Britain will become a pariah of international trade. This is going to be a monumental if not impossible task for Ms. May, which defines the strategic dead end she is facing.

Externally, other EU governments and institutions will know that Theresa May is a lame duck and has little mandate to do much about Brexit. The external environment will become even more difficult for Ms. May and her anti-EU government if incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel wins the German elections (as the polls currently predict), not to mention the international isolation of the erratic Donald Trump. The EU has no reason to do favours to Ms. May's Euroskeptic government; rather, they can use Britain as an example of nationalism going wrong.

On top of this unfavourable political climate, the Brexit economic kerfuffle is already beginning to bite. The U.K. is the worst performer in the EU in terms of growth and is dealing with a falling pound, increasing inflation and one of the highest trade deficits the country has ever recorded. In simple terms, Britain lives beyond its means, and a potential break from the EU single market will be the final nail in the coffin of a dysfunctional political economy based on conspicuous consumption, high debts and high inequality and poverty. Britain should brace itself for more upheaval in the coming months.

In other words, the electoral humiliation of Theresa May and the strategic dead end she faces with Brexit seem to be only the beginning of her woes. But the Tory party has only itself to blame: They should have known from European history that nativism, nationalism and populism have a short shelf life – just as, seemingly, Ms. May and her government do.

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